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'Historic' Decision Ahead for Lorton

Fairfax County seeks to put former prison site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fairfax County is aiming to preserve and rehabilitate the site of the former D.C. Correctional Facility off Route 123 in Lorton.

The county has begun the process of nominating 552 acres of property on the site of the former D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton to the National Register of Historic Places. Members of the county's History Commission, Architectural Review Board, the Lorton Heritage Society, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) were on hand to present plans to the public at a meeting on Saturday, May 14, at Silverbrook Elementary in Fairfax Station.

"If we don't hang onto our history, nobody's going to do it for us," said Lynne Garvey Wark, chairperson of the Fairfax County History Commission, one of several county organizations involved in researching and compiling information on the former prison site, with the goal of filing a formal application with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources later this year.

The county is proposing that the section of the 2,400-acre plot of land that it owns be recognized as a National Historic District, for reasons that are significant to social, political and architectural history.

"This site is worth the recognition that this status would offer, and it deserves to be recognized," said Irma Clifton, president of the Lorton Heritage Society.

CLOSED IN 2001, the prison was transferred to Fairfax County in 2002. A myriad of uses are proposed for the site, which has been named the Laurel Hill Community Planning Sector, including the new South County Secondary School, an arts colony for the Lorton Arts Foundation, a permanent home for the Cold War Museum, playing fields and an historic museum. The proposed historic district comprises the heart of the prison buildings, including the former reformatory, penitentiary, and Occoquan workhouse areas of the prison, which was built beginning in 1910 under the guidance of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a prison run under principles guided by the Progressive ideals of rehabilitating prisoners through constructive vocational training. For that reason, Lorton's prisoners built many of the prison buildings, using bricks baked at an on-site brickyard. In addition to begin significant for its importance to the Progressive movement, David Edwards with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources said the Lorton prison also qualifies due to its involvement with the women's suffrage movement of the 1910s. Several key members of the movement were detained in 1917 at the women's facility on the prison property. The architecture of regionally popular architect Snowden Ashord in the "Colonial Revival" style also is a valuable historic resource, said those in favor of the project.

"This is the signature physical expression of the ideals of the reform movement. It's clearly eligible," said Liz Sargent, a historical landscape architect with the Charlottesville firm of John Milner Associates, which has been conducting site studies to draw the boundaries for the property, and researching the history associated with various buildings.

Once the Virginia DHR receives the application, the state's review board will decide if the Lorton prison site is eligible at one of its quarterly meetings, likely in September. Should the board approve it, the prison would be officially listed in 60 days.

What the Historic District status would mean for the adaptive reuse efforts proposed by the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Task Force is still unclear. But initially, the county would go to work securing Historic Overlay District status for the same area. That would allow the county to preserve certain historic structures within its boundaries, and "to assure that new structures and uses within such districts will be in keeping with the character to be preserved and enhanced," according to the ARB statement of purpose.

"It's a process for managing change. It's a tool to enable us to make a determination about what's going to change and how it's going to change," said Bierce. "It was created to reform the character of the individual … and we have been given this incredible resource."