A year ago, a 1930s Virginia farmhouse sat vacant and decaying on a plot of land with a troubled past in southern Fairfax County.
Known as the Stempson House, the Colonial-style home had been built for prison officers at the Occoquan Workhouse, once a model for prison reform and later the site where suffragists who had protested outside the White House would be beaten and tortured by guards.
Occoquan later became Lorton Reformatory — with an even more troubled history of violence and mismanagement — before closing in 2001. And the farmhouse was left behind, vacant and falling into disrepair.
“The property was an eyesore to everybody,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Daniel G. Storck (D-Mount Vernon).
Yet there may be hope for Stempson House and other deteriorating historic properties in the county. The farmhouse is now the inaugural site for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resident Curator program, which leases properties to qualified tenants with the ability to restore and maintain them.
Modeled on similar initiatives in Massachusetts, Maryland and Delaware, the program costs little to taxpayers, Storck said. Curators don’t pay rent, but they are expected to fund repairs and maintenance.
“Without the program, I don’t see what else we would do,” Storck said.
Officials point out that the project offers a solution to preservation in an era of shrinking county budgets, particularly for neglected properties succumbing to the elements.
Fairfax County has allocated a $175,000 operating budget to supplement curator renovations, said David Buchta, the Park Authority’s heritage conservation branch manager.
To qualify, curators must have experience in restoration and renovation, sign nine-year leases and commit to repairs and regular upkeep, Buchta said. Nonprofit organizations and businesses can also serve as curators.
The county’s first curator, Steven McCullough, moved into Stempson House on Feb. 18. He said he had wanted to settle in Northern Virginia once he retired from active duty in the Coast Guard. When he and his daughter searched the online real estate site Zillow for a home to rent, Stempson House came up.
“I’ve been a do-it-yourself home improvement kind of guy for a while now, and I remodeled a 1930s farmhouse in Upstate New York,” McCullough said. “I started looking into it and thought it was up my alley and that I would be good at it.”
But the place needed a lot of work.
“The house was definitely not turnkey,” McCullough said. “The walls, ceilings, plumbing and bathrooms were in rough shape, and there was no kitchen.” He said the home was in worse condition than he expected.
But it was the history behind the home and the plan to salvage it that appealed to McCullough, who was a history major in college.
The Lorton facility was designed to ease overcrowding and improve conditions among Washington’s growing inmate population, according to a Jan. 30, 1910, Washington Post article. The article noted that Congress envisioned the site as a model penal system that would train prisoners for employment upon their release.
Designed to be self-supporting — by using prison labor — the complex housed a farm, reformatory and penitentiary.
In 1917, the prison’s superintendent was accused of overseeing the mistreatment of 16 suffragist inmates at the Occoquan Workhouse. The activists faced charges such as inciting unlawful assemblage and obstructing traffic.
Twenty years later, inmate labor built Stempson House. Workers used bricks manufactured at the prison kiln, according to a historic structure report commissioned by the Park Authority.
Over the next few years, the Park Authority plans to assign curators to 27 publicly owned properties in the county, Buchta said.
Each of the chosen sites will undergo extensive architectural and budgetary review — a process that can take years, Buchta said. “We do a historic structure report and treatment plan that gives the curator an idea of what work we expect to be put into the property,” he said.
The Virginia General Assembly in 2011 authorized localities to develop Resident Curator programs. Fairfax’s Board of Supervisors then directed the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, the Park Authority and the History Commission to evaluate the potential costs and benefits of such a program.
So far, Fairfax County is the only Virginia jurisdiction that has adopted a Resident Curator program.
The review process is lengthy. McCullough applied in February 2017. He underwent a financial review and had to revise his proposal several times. After relocating to Northern Virginia that June, he lived in an apartment for six months and in his sister’s basement for an additional two months while he waited for approval.
McCullough, his daughter, their dog and cat finally moved in a little over a year after applying.
McCullough said some of the wait was because of the newness of the program. “There are lots of different steps to navigate and figure out. The county is still learning its own processes and requirements to make it efficient and streamlined,” he said.
Buchta said a lot of administrative detail went into the process. “Ideally, this would be a six- to nine-month process if it’s a residential situation,” he said.
But Buchta called McCullough “an excellent fit for this house.”
“He had some background in rehabilitation and a portfolio of extensive remodeling work,” he said. “We felt he had the knowledge and experience necessary to make the project viable.”
McCullough said he has committed $165,000 to refurbishing Stempson House and has spent about $27,000 since signing his lease in December.
“Budget-wise it was doable, and skill-wise I felt aligned” to the work the house needed, McCullough said.
The Park Authority will inspect McCullough’s work on Stempson House once a month in the near future, then move to quarterly inspections. “It just depends on what we are able to do in terms of our resources and the number of curators we have,” Buchta said.
Through its database, the Park Authority tracks McCullough’s progress and “his sweat equity and what he paid for” fixes, Buchta said.
Curators must also make the properties available to the public. “They have to somehow involve the public in what they are doing,” he said. McCullough maintains a blog as a record of his progress.
So far, he has installed a plumbing system and a boiler and renovated the kitchen, bathroom, walls and ceilings.
The county also invested about $75,000 for new electric and septic systems and a well, Buchta said.
“The house is livable and comfortable now — the kitchen is 90 percent done,” McCullough said. “Now it’s just interior tweaks, drywall repair, plumbing leaks.”
The program requires that he finish the rehabilitation in five years, then continue with maintenance until his lease is up.
Without this program, similar sites, many of which have sat unused for decades, might deteriorate and eventually require demolition.
Stempson House “has been brought back to modern standards and will be maintained as a piece of history,” McCullough said. “It will no longer be an eyesore or attract vandals.”