Breaking The Mold -- Again

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

In Dormitory Six of the former Lorton Reformatory, time stands still.

In the common room at the entrance of the red-brick building, the rules for using pay phones are posted.

In a narrow adjoining room, metal bed frames, with steel lockers welded to them as headboards, sit without mattresses in two crisp lines. More rules on the wall include: "No cats in the living quarters."

Tim Sargeant stood at the entrance to the living quarters earlier this month. He moved to Lorton about 15 years ago, when the dormitory housed medium-security inmates from the District. He remembers stopping on the side of Route 123 so his daughter could pet the cows raised at the prison dairy.

Back then, Sargeant never dreamed that he would try to attract a developer with a vision for the old prison complex, someone interested in turning buildings that once housed cells into a vibrant suburban community.

His daughter is now grown, the dairy was shut in 1998 and the prison was closed in 2001, ending a penal period for the southern part of the county. Those going north on 123 (Ox Road) are still greeted soon after they enter Fairfax by the sight of the reformatory barracks and the penitentiary walls and towers. Sargeant's group wants to make that a welcome sight.

Sargeant is chairman of the Laurel Hill Project Advisory Citizens Oversight Committee, established by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to monitor redevelopment.

"I think it is hard for people to envision this being something more than it is today," Sargeant said as he walked across a grassy quadrangle from Dormitory Six toward the institution's cafeteria, where huge soup cauldrons now stand empty and covered in the musty kitchen. "But I think it will be a cool place to live."

Finding a developer who thinks it would be a cool place to live entails finding one willing to work within strict rules. Most buildings, some dating to the 1920s, cannot be torn down under an agreement made when the land was transferred to the county in 2002.

Last month, those restrictions were reinforced when the 511-acre site was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service. The prison complex -- where the workhouse, reformatory and penitentiary are, as well as a youth correctional facility and other nonresidential sections -- has become the District of Columbia Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District.

The Fairfax supervisors applied for the Park Service designation for financial as well as historic reasons -- it made developers eligible for millions of dollars in state and federal tax credits for work on the site.

In the early 20th century, penal structures began rising on the land at the recommendation of a panel set up by President Theodore Roosevelt. Disturbed by conditions in Washington's prisons, the government established a workhouse in 1910 on Route 123. It was designed to hold those convicted of nonviolent crimes and serving short sentences. To give them decent conditions, it was an agricultural work camp; the dairy was part of its legacy. The workhouse had no fences.

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