A History Worth Preserving?

A History Worth Preserving?

Historic distinction may help to secure grants.

The battle to close the former Lorton Prison may be long over, but the struggle over what will happen to the buildings on the site has just begun.

In preparation for the Monday, Oct. 17 public hearing before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the county's History Commission discussed the best possible argument for preserving many of the remaining prison structures at its Wednesday, Oct. 5 meeting.

"This is something that needs the endorsement of the entire community," said commissioner Irma Clifton.

While some recent residents of the Lorton area may prefer to call their neighborhood Laurel Hill and would just assume forget the prison, many long-time residents see the prison buildings as reminders of the area's history. They recall baseball games between local police officers and inmates, a community that housed one of the last dairy farms in the county, a building of confinement that managed to nurture artworks that have been saved for inclusion in a planned gallery.

It's hard to tell which side has the support of the community.

"We were a little cluster at the meeting a few weeks ago at South County," said commissioner Paula Elsey, referring to a preliminary community discussion on Sept. 22 led by Supervisor Gerald "Gerry" Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). That meeting had been scheduled to discuss what having Laurel Hill included on the National Registry of Historic Places would mean for the area, both in terms of preservation and possible future development at the site, as well as what the distinction of a "historic district" would mean.

Most of the residents at that meeting were supporters of the local South County Hawks baseball team or expressed their concern over allowing the prison buildings to stand.

WHEN THE federal government handed over the prison land to Fairfax County in 2002, a Memorandum of Agreement was written outlining which structures were to be included in a historic district to commemorate the site. Part of the land, as part of the same agreement, is to remain open park land and is under the control of the Fairfax County Park Authority. Other portions can be redeveloped.

"It is important to let the supervisors know that, regardless of how they vote [on the inclusion in the Historic Registry], this holds," said commissioner Barbara Naef. "Because of the land transfer, all actions taken in the district are considered Section 106 actions." Section 106 is a federal rule that applies both to areas included on the National Historic Registry and areas eligible to be included on the registry.

If an area is included on the National Historic Registry, it does not mean any existing buildings must remain standing, the commissioners said.

At the Sept. 22 meeting, many residents talked of the urgent need for the construction of a middle school, possibly in the location where the prison currently stands.

"There is no correlation between the school need issue and inclusion in the registry," said Naef. "This is a valuable issue to people living there, but it will not be relieved if the site is included in the registry. I understand the need, but this is not the venue for it."

If the site is included in the Historic Registry, potential developers may be eligible to receive grants for any projects established on the site, she said.

"The Board of Supervisors has appointed a committee consisting of three people to investigate the application," said Clifton. "Those people are going to request the board defer their decision until at least next spring and their rationale for doing that is to wait until after the RFPs go out," she said.

Currently, the county is considering sending out requests for proposals, or RFPs, from developers to obtain ideas for what could potentially be built on the former prison site. "They seem to have some fear that the developers will look at the nomination of the site and see it as a negative and not submit an RFP," Clifton said.

"Do they understand that whether it's accepted or not they're still obligated (to follow certain procedures under Section 106,)" said Naef.

"I tried to make a point that people who will submit RFPs are not from the community and will not submit RFPs without knowing the benefits of being in the registry," said Clifton.

"In terms of the future development of the site, the Architectural Review Board and the Lorton Arts Foundation will have a chance to work with structures and determine what it makes sense to keep," said commissioner Elise Ruff Murray.

DRAWING COMPARISONS to another famous former prison may bode well for the commission.

"Making a parallel to Alcatraz is a beautiful parable," said commission chair Lynne Garvey Wark. "A handful of us can appreciate the historic significance of a property like that. I have clear memories of standing in the cafeteria at Alcatraz on a tour and looking up at the menu board of the last meal served there," she said.

One way to make the human history behind the Lorton inmates and those who worked there is to "pull in some real life stories and information that speaks to the reality of the people who inhabited this place," said Garvey Wark.

"The people who are new to the area look at the site and all they see are structures and walls," said commissioner Sallie Lyons. "People who are new to the community have no connection with the stories that these buildings can tell."

The new residents hope to create the same sort of public-private partnership that made the construction of the South County Secondary School possible, Clifton explained. "Their idea is to demolish the prison and propose a retail or commercial development to leverage some funds to build the middle school," she said.

Another possible way to make money for the school might be to allow movies to be filmed there, Lyons suggested.

When the commissioners were finished discussing the matter for the evening, a resident of the Laurel Hill area stood up.

"My name is Tom Moore and I generally disagree with you," he said. "But I wanted to thank you for all the volunteer work that you have done at the site," he said.

When the Memorandum of Agreement was first drafted, it seemed fairly straightforward, said Gerald "Gerry" Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). Now, the question of what should be preserved or dismantled at Laurel Hill "has taken on a life of its own," he said.

Following the public hearing on Oct. 17, "the Board of Supervisors could take a position, they could move to defer a decision until the RFPs come in or they could suggest the nomination be amended, which would mean the petition would go back to square one," Hyland said. "This is not a question with a simple answer and I'm grappling with that."