County Museum Coming to Lorton?

County Museum Coming to Lorton?

History buffs discuss potential for putting county-wide history museum on former prison site.

From the front lines of the Battle of Manassas to the rapid development in the Lorton area, the history of Fairfax County is long and varied with many stories to tell.

But where can those who live here, or are just passing through, learn about it all? Nowhere just yet, but that might change in the near future.

During the Monday, June 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) asked the board to consider the possibility of placing a Fairfax County History Museum on the former Lorton Prison grounds, creating a place where visitors can learn about the history of the county in one place.

"We have a lot of historic materials and information, and there are little museums and showcases throughout the county, but there's no one place where all of our collection can be displayed appropriately," Bulova said. "We've grown up as a county enough to be looking for a location to have a museum like this."

Bob Cosgriff, Bulova's appointee to the Laurel Hill Reuse Committee and later a member of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens Oversight Committee, said talk of a museum began when Bulova was working with other citizens on a book chronicling the history of the Braddock District.

"During the study of the Laurel Hill Reuse Task Force, we had some architects come in and look at the buildings at the Lorton Prison, which indicated that the penitentiary area off Silverbrook Road might best be developed with some sort of educational use," Cosgriff said. However, with the buildings nearly 100 years old, it may cost the same to restore them to 21st century codes and standards as to build a whole new facility.

"We did talk to some people from the Smithsonian about running a museum and while there is room there, there's a lot of work that would be need," he said. "Plus, museums are very expensive to operate."

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY History Museum would be another reference point at the former prison site, complementing the proposed Cold War Museum and one planned for the Lorton Arts Foundation's Workhouse cultural center that would tell the story of the prison site itself, Cosgriff said.

"The idea of a Fairfax County museum is a good one, but how do you get it to fit in with the master plan?" Cosgriff asked. "Laurel Hill may or may not be the optimal location for this plan, but it should be considered."

Tim Sargent, who chaired the most recent task force and is the chairman of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens Oversight Committee, agrees with Cosgriff that putting a county museum at Laurel Hill is "a wonderful idea on a site that embraces history."

However, he's uncertain where the museum would fit in terms of the overall redevelopment of the site, which stretches out over several hundred acres.

"We're still in the very early stages of discussing this," Sargent said. "We don't want to create something that competes for funding with other projects in the area. We want everything that comes in to the Laurel Hill area to be as self-sufficient as possible."

Sargent said if the museum concept was accepted, the commitment agreed to by Board of Supervisors, Fairfax County Park Authority and the federal government, from which the Lorton prison was purchased, to preserve open space will still be maintained.

"In the northeast quadrant of the site, there's a lot of environmentally-sensitive plants and cataloging of wetlands and species, along with the incorporation of land fall and grading that was taken into consideration when the new golf course was built," Sargent said.

No specific percentage or number of acres has been determined as the amount of open space to be preserved, Sargent said, but "there is a sense of making sure that there is a maintenance of open space."

Still, adding a Fairfax County museum to the overall vision for the "world class attribute" that Laurel Hill is predicted to become "makes sense in terms of the Lorton area and South County," said Chris Caperton, the Laurel Hill coordinator for the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning. "Whether this is the right place, I'm not sure yet. We need to think about the space and the parking. That all needs to be determined."

For the foreseeable future, hopes for the county-wide museum depend on space and money.

"This won't be just a building, it's a place where materials are preserved and archived," Bulova said. "There's an expense that goes into that sort of facility that we need to think long term about, including what the costs would be and what would be required. This is all in the very early exploratory stage."