The quad at Lorton Reformatory. Image by the author.

This is Part Two of our series about Liberty at Lorton. Read Part One about the prison's history here.

In the 1990s, Lorton, Virginia was zoned mostly for industry, not for housing. With efforts to close Lorton Reformatory underway, Fairfax County took the opportunity to think about what it should do with the old prison.

Gerry Hyland, who retired from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in 2015, had joined a committee tasked with considering the future of Lorton. “[We] came forward with a plan to transform and change the Lorton community into a place with more citizens [and] residences, and emphasized bringing people there versus more businesses,” he said.

This was easier said than done. In 2006, the Lorton Reformatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Though Fairfax County officially purchased the prison site and its buildings in 2002, redevelopment was a slow process. With such an interesting history and more than 1,000 acres, it was important to preserve key buildings, but the value of the land meant it also needed to be useful to the county.

How about some schools, houses, art studios, and a training center?

Over time, the land was divided and used for different purposes, and renovated along the way. Dan Storck, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and representative for the Mount Vernon district (which includes Lorton), became involved with the project in the early 2000s when he was elected to the county school board. He said that at the time, the county badly needed more schools. The first school in the community opened in 2002 and two more in 2008.

Workhouse Arts Center. Image by Public Domain.

In 2011, some of the former juvenile facilities became a training area for firefighters. The old workhouses became the Workhouse Arts Center, occupying 55 acres with innovative art spaces and a prison museum that highlights the suffragettes’ struggle for voting rights.

Fairfax County also sold some of the land to Pulte to build new housing, in exchange for 800 acres of land in the Mason Neck peninsula. Those houses are now right across from the prison on Lorton Road.

Old and new. Image by the author.

Okay, now what about more housing?

Eventually, the county turned to addressing its housing needs. The main prison site now offered around 80 acres to work with. The county faced the daunting task of converting the prison barracks into housing and then convincing residents that they could find a home in an old prison. But first, the county needed the right people.

The county brought in The Alexander Company, a developer that specializes in adaptive reuse of historical buildings. The first step was to create a master plan, which would include financial estimates for cost based on what types of housing would be built.

Dave Vos of The Alexander Company said, “[There was] a lot of time between the completion of the master plan and the actual development agreement because we finished the plan at the heels of the housing crisis. We looked to a partner to provide substance behind our [financial] estimates and were able to commit to the project,” which led them to Elm Street.

Jack Perkins, a Vice President at Elm Street Development, the lead developer of the Liberty at Lorton project, says that the community was heavily involved. When it came time to decide what type of housing and how many units would fit into the grounds, Perkins said that residents, the county, and the developers had lengthy discussions.

“[The] overwhelming response from the community was ‘we want a mix of housing types. We’d like to see some apartments, some condos, some townhomes, some single family homes. We’d like to see a mix and we’d like to see commercial, retail and office,” he said.

As a result, and taking into consideration how much density the community wanted, Elm Street and The Alexander Company arrived at a total of 165 apartments, 24 single-family houses, 83 townhouses, around 40,000 square feet of community space, and around 100,00 square feet of commercial space built from the maximum security penitentiary.

The planned phases for the development. Image by Fairfax County.

Transforming the prison into housing and community space

Transforming the prison to housing was a massive undertaking, though the prison’s design helped. Its architect, Snowden Ashford, designed it to look more like a college campus than a typical prison. He added large windows, providing the barracks with a lot of light. More than 100 years after it was built, the county would be able to preserve most of the exterior, including the windows, because they were built well and were mostly suitable for use in housing.

The prison had been in poor shape before it closed in 1999, and further deteriorated over the years. The buildings were without electricity, heating, or running water, and the lead-based paint was peeling in large flakes. The metal cell bars were rusting and on top of that, the buildings were filled with asbestos.

Peeling paint. Image by Vanessa French used with permission.

Vos said that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best condition a site could have been in, he gave Lorton an 8. He said that Fairfax County had done a good job of making repairs to the roofs when necessary, which kept a lot of moisture out of the vacant buildings.

This video shows what Lorton Reformatory looked like around 2009. Eagle-eyed viewers might notice similarities between the old footage and the photos of the redeveloped buildings, with the exception of some doors that have been added or removed.

The grounds, which can be seen in this video shot using a drone, were also in disrepair.

Elm Street, Alexander Company, and the county worked extensively with the Lorton community, Virginia Historic Preservation Board and the National Park Service each step of the way, drafting a master plan, getting feedback, and ushering in any changes to create the best balance of function and beauty.

Storck said that there were three primary aspects to consider: marketing such a place, financial responsibility, and ensuring the community was on board. The county wanted the redevelopment to be sustainable by itself, with as little initial investment from the county as possible.

With financial consideration, Storck asked, “What’s going to be most attractive to the buying and renting market, and what the price points would be that you could offer, and what are the margins or profits on those market rate homes could be to ensure you had sufficient workforce housing there?” He said the community had made it clear that it wanted workforce housing and a mixed-use redevelopment.

“Frankly, what permeated everybody’s consideration was how do we plan, create, and secure a viable community that will have people who want to live there and will have the elements that will make it a successful community? [Lorton is] its own sub community,” he said.

Old buildings made new

The barracks have been transformed into apartments, but remnants of the prison remain; for example, most of the apartments retain the original concrete floor, brick walls, and windows of the barracks. The buildings have many of their original prison signage on the front. Perkins says that these barracks were mostly one large room with two doors, one on each end.

Lorton Reformatory dorm. Image by Fairfax County.

To create apartments, they overhauled the utilities, added interior walls and insulation behind the existing brick, and put in new entrances so that residents would enter from the courtyard. Though the windows were in good condition, they needed to be restored and were single pane and didn’t keep out cold very well.

To insulate the new homes, the Alexander Company added a second, new window that would help residents get ventilation and keep out the cold, while allowing them to still enjoy the historic window behind it. Perkins estimated that more than $2 million went into restoring and preserving the windows.

Many windows had bars on them, which were not preserved because they were added much later. Barred window at Lorton prison by egvvnd licensed under Creative Commons.

Interior of the new apartments. Image by Liberty Crest used with permission.

Interior of the new apartments. Image by Liberty Crest used with permission.

Exterior of the new apartments. Image by Liberty Crest.

Some buildings that had not been originally used to house prisoners were ideal to be converted to housing. For example, the old Civic Center Gymnasium is now housing, and the old mess hall is now partly used as a fitness center.

The old gym. Image by Vanessa French used with permission.

Renovated gym. Image by Liberty Crest used with permission.

Preserving the buildings also led to some quirks, like the fact that inside some of the buildings there are doors, original to the building, that no longer lead to anything. They have no handles and are simply part of the new wall that Elm Street and Alexander placed behind them. The presence of these original doors, freshly painted in black, as completely inaccessible portals, lends a slightly surreal feeling to the hallway.

Perkins said that the chapel, which was completed in 1961 after a lengthy effort to raise funds and provide a permanent space for religious services, was going to be preserved for its original use and now that it is preserved and rehabilitated, is available to be leased for religious services. He said the community wanted it to maintain its original purpose rather than transform it into housing.

The church being cleaned and prepped for repair and new construction. Image by The Liberty Life used with permission.

The old prison cafeteria now includes the new gym, yoga room, and a recreation room.

New pool. Image by the author.

Yoga room at Lorton. Image by Liberty Crest used with permission.

The Workhouse Arts Center also continues to make progress on vacant buildings on its section of the reformatory land. In 2018, the center anticipates opening the Lucy Burns Museum, a celebration of one of the central figures of the women’s suffrage movement. It will be located in one of the old cell block buildings.

Future development in Lorton

The townhouses are being built now, along with single family homes. Perkins said that much of the work to add utilities was done during phase I. Because the new homes are on historically preserved land but not in historic buildings, Elm Street, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, National Park Service and the Fairfax County Architectural Review Board, “decided to go with a more simple modern aesthetic. The conclusion was that they didn’t want it to look like the prison. They wanted it to be compatible with it, but not imitate it,” Perkins said.

Townhouses at Lorton.

“In phase II there will be six more units and 74 of the 181 townhouse lots. These are new build, getting the utilities to them, getting the land graded, building retaining walls. When we put townhouses over there, we’ll build substantial retaining walls. A lot of the water, sewer, stormwater management was done in the first phase,” Perkins said. The new build housing will share a pool, gym, and other community facilities with the apartments.

Image by the author.

The maximum security buildings will eventually be redeveloped into retail, with the option to convert some of the retail units into housing if the developers don’t attract retail tenants. Perkins said construction should begin in 2019.

Vos said that right now, there’s some question about which of the maximum security penitentiary walls will remain. He said that when they were built, there was no accounting for heat and cold, which meant the brick and mortar would expand and contract during different weather conditions and eventually, the walls began to push off their foundations. Additionally, retailers had expressed apprehension about having penitentiary walls around their shops.

“The Lorton community has come into its own and no one looks at it as the armpit of the county. It’s an attractive and favorable place to live,” Hyland said. “It’s really been a metamorphosis. It’s a positive for the community. It’s a fascinating story about the change, but the change happened primarily because the citizens demanded we do something different.”

Joanne Tang is a Northern Virginia native and a graduate student in public administration and policy, focusing on resiliency and emergency response. She lives in Alexandria and enjoys learning about pretty much everything, including the history of pencils.