The Alexander Company has landed itself behind bars, but that’s exactly where the company wants to be.
The Madison urban developer has earned a solid reputation across the nation for its historic preservation projects, and that notoriety led the company to be chosen to help lead the extensive redevelopment of the historic Lorton prison located in Fairfax County, Va., just outside of the District of Columbia.
The Alexander Co. is working with other developers to transform the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Area (formerly Lorton Reformatory & Penitentiary), originally commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century, into a vibrant hub of community residences, workplaces, shopping, and green space.
“Lorton prison is a unique opportunity to re-invent an underutilized, nationally-recognized, historic asset,” says Joe Alexander, president of The Alexander Co. “As a part of our history and culture, places like Lorton prison must be restored and preserved for future generations. Through the joint efforts of private developers and the public sector, we can save more of these landmarks.”
The first phase of the development calls for 165 historic apartments, 83 new townhomes, 24 new single-family homes, a clubhouse, a swimming pool, and historic retail and commercial space – the chapel and powerhouse. The community layout will accommodate visitors arriving by car and feature a variety of pedestrian and bicycle connections weaving the site into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“The Alexander Company has helped realize the vision of the Adaptive Reuse Site,” says Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland. “They have worked collaboratively with Fairfax County and our community groups every step of the way and will deliver an exciting new community that will be a showcase for how to adaptively reuse historic properties the right way.”
Redeveloping the reformatory
Redeveloping a historic site is not without its challenges, and the Lorton prison project is no exception.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lorton prison site consists of a 41-building reformatory complex and a 15-structure penitentiary. The courtyard and arcades built by Lorton inmates from handmade bricks have actually withstood the test of time remarkably well. However, the existing infrastructure needs work, says Dave Vos, development project manager for The Alexander Co.
“Another challenge is the infrastructure requirements,” Vos continues. “The prison complex was on a separate water, sewer, and electrical generation system. All of the existing utilities to the site have been abandoned and need to be replaced and connected to public services. Storm water management facilities were practically nonexistent; therefore, new storm water detention and water quality improvements had to be designed into the site without changing its character.”“This is the first prison, but certainly not the first institutional facility [Alexander has worked on],” notes Vos. “The primary challenge includes the creation of spaces and an environment that is conducive to the mix of uses, which include single-family homes, townhomes, apartments, retail, office, daycare, and the chapel.
Vos says more than 90% of the buildings and historic features — guard towers, brick streets, etc. — are being retained. While there are very few cellblocks in the reformatory, some representative samples from the penitentiary are being donated to the prison museum.
The Liberty Crest at Laurel Hill development is designed with sufficient size to make it a successful neighborhood center, and the new retail area boasts easy and convenient access. Intended to house community-serving uses such as a small grocery, bank, drug store, dry cleaner, and restaurants, people living on-site will be neighbors supporting the same.
Former penitentiary buildings will provide office workers with an interesting and unique workplace where they can walk to lunch to enjoy a break in one of the neighborhood’s many open spaces. Newly constructed single-family homes and townhomes place front doors on tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly streets. The reformatory provides residents with a unique living opportunity in the former dormitory structures.
The development is planned as a prominent feature and visitor stop on the Greenway Trail, utilizing the towers and historic buildings to interpret the history of the area. In addition to creating an exciting new community, the historic core of the reformatory and penitentiary will be preserved.
“It is always rewarding to preserve a historic structure that plays an important role in the story of a community and help define its identity or sense of place,” Vos notes. “However, there certainly is a draw to be involved in projects of national significance that are often markers of our country’s historical events.”
Unique place in history
Originally commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century, the Lorton Workhouse was created as a place where inmates in the District of Columbia could be rehabilitated by acquiring new trade skills — a philosophy considered to be a daring experiment in penology for that era. Roosevelt believed a prisoner’s rehabilitation could be improved if provided with fresh air, natural light, and a place to live and work.
Development of the reformatory focused on prison industry, a reformation technique that was popular in that era. Lorton employed extensive agricultural operations, such as cultivated fields, pastureland, a poultry farm, hog ranch, slaughterhouse, and dairy. Not only did the inmates tend to agricultural needs, they also produced manhole covers, worked as blacksmiths, furnished brooms, re-treaded tires, worked a sawmill, and knit sweaters.Similar to the workhouse, the Lorton Reformatory was designed as a campus and constructed by the prisoners themselves using bricks manufactured in on-site kilns and lumber cut from trees on the property. The dormitory-style buildings are laid out in a way that provide abundant natural light and open green-space, contrary to traditional cellblocks.
By the 1920s, the reformatory had achieved outstanding success as an open-style institution. This revolutionary concept, combined with the positive relationships between guards and inmates, placed the reformatory among the most progressive penal systems in the United States.
With the addition of academic and vocational programs to an inmate’s treatment, Lorton continued to concentrate on prison industry up until the mid-1940s. Inmates made significant contributions to World War II efforts — from donating blood to manufacturing uniforms. Lorton housed a national Nike missile site — a U.S. air defense system designed to protect against a Soviet nuclear attack, named after the Greek goddess of victory — in 1953 for a span of 20 years before being closed by the Secretary of Defense.By the 1930s the agricultural operations were well underway with over 1,700 acres of cultivated land. No fences or walls enclosed the reformatory, with only 45 officers and a half-dozen trained bloodhounds working in shifts. Eventually a walled area and cellblocks were constructed for inmates with longer sentences and more serious crimes, assisting with the administration of the 1,596 inmates the prison housed by 1938.
The prison operations came to a close in 2001 when the last prisoners were moved out of the facility. In 2002 Lorton was released from the District of Columbia to the Federal General Services Administration. Later that same year ownership of the entire Lorton facility — 2,324 acres in total — was transferred to Fairfax County.
Today, the property is referred to as Laurel Hill to commemorate the 18th century structure that served as the home of William Lindsay, a Revolutionary War patriot.