Virginia preservationists are calling for the historic recognition and protection of Lorton Correctional Complex, the 90-year-old sprawling property that once was a model prison where inmates built the structures, managed a farm and ran a knitting mill. The much-maligned D.C. facility -- which is being closed by the federal government -- today is thought of as an oppressive, poorly managed prison where escapes and riots often have made news and guards sometimes have been charged with crimes themselves. The federal government took over the prison in 1997 because the D.C. government was unable to resolve the facility's problems. Lorton resident Irma Clifton and former resident Harry Lattimore, who head the preservation effort, are determined to resurrect the image of the prison as an early prison model for the country and to protect many of the architecturally significant buildings on the mostly rural 3,000-acre site. They have done extensive research and last month made a formal application to state and federal officials for recognition of the Workhouse/Reformatory Historic District of Lorton on about 2,000 acres. Clifton, speaking before the Fairfax County History Commission at a meeting Wednesday night, said she anticipated skepticism. "I want you to be open-minded about Lorton," Clifton said. "I know people of this generation will say, Oh, no, no, no,' but it's true. Lorton was a model prison and people came from all over the country to see it. I know you don't believe that but it's true." The commission advises the Fairfax Board of Supervisors on issues related to county history. Although commissioners said they supported the proposed district, they decided to take a formal vote later when they officially receive the application for review. In addition to the prison, there also are a former Nike missile site, installed during the cold war era to protect Washington, and Laurel Hill, a plantation house built in the 1700s, on the site. All of it is set on rolling hills dominated by woodlands and agricultural fields. A portion of the historic district application cites the prison facility as an "unmistakable expression of the Progressive Era reform," with its emphasis on benevolent programs designed to improve American society. The belief was that hard physical work, learned skills and fresh air would transform a lawbreaker into a good citizen. The Occoquan Workhouse, constructed in 1909, housed 500 inmates who built the dorms, dining hall, laundry, bake shop, ice plant and hospital. Bricks were made by the prisoners, and lumber came from trees cut on the property. Two more sections were added, the Lorton Reformatory in 1913 and the penitentiary in the 1930s. By then a working farm was in place and inmates were mostly self-sufficient. They raised their own beef cattle and hogs, managed a dairy herd and farmed 1,200 acres. By the end of World War II, enthusiasm for the Progressive Era philosophy had ebbed and a policy of stricter controls was instituted. Gradually, the factory operations and the farm were closed. Although Clifton and Lattimore have received some initial support from state officials, they are certain to be opposed by developers interested in new residential communities on the land. A historic district designation in Fairfax County, however, as in most of the state, does not protect the buildings from demolition, according to Marc Wagner, who manages the state's historic designation office. He said Alexandria and Richmond have strong local ordinances that protect designated buildings. Wagner said his office had endorsed the project but could do little until the ownership of the site is resolved because the owners have to approve the proposal. Pieces of it already belong to Fairfax, and some of it will become the property of a private developer when a land swap involving threatened wetlands is finalized. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration has jurisdiction over most of the proposed district. Clifton, a retired Lorton prison administrator, said she would like to see some of the prison buildings converted into an arts and entertainment center. CAPTION: The federal government took over the District's Lorton Correctional Complex, at left, in 1997 because the D.C. government was unable to resolve the facility's problems. Now preservationists want to protect the 90-year-old complex, below, in Fairfax County. ec