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Urban Redo: Lorton, Virginia Prison Recreated as Liberty Village

The suburb, called Liberty, already boasts 157 urban townhouses, 24 single family homes, the Liberty Crest apartment complex, Liberty Market, a gym, a pool and several restaurants with a church, a grocery store and a shopping center on the way. In addition, developers recently received approval for another 50,000 square feet for office space. All of this surrounded by existing structures of the defunct prison, including several guard towers. Advertisements for the development read: “The unique community incorporates the historic campus into modern development that includes loft-style apartments, distinguished single-family and townhouses, well-cultured retail and restaurants, and collaborative office spaces.”

Lorton prison was originally designed in 1910 by the famous architect Snowden Ashford, best known for Georgetown’s Greek Revival-style Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was to be the showplace of modern prison reform at that time. The prison, nicknamed “House of Pain,” stayed open for 91 years and earned its reputation as one of the most violent and overcrowded prisons in the United States as it became increasingly filled with major dealers of D.C.’s drug trade. As well, the prison has housed such famous people as musician Chuck Brown, Nazi spy Laura Houghtaling, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, author/Vietnam war protester Norman Mailer and filmmaker/drug dealer Karim Mowatt. After a spate of escapes in 1997, Bill Clinton, while president, signed an order for the prison’s closure.

Lorton shuttered in 2001. County officials began looking for someone to reform it. In 2006, the County registered the prison in the National Register of Historic Places, thereby making it eligible to receive redevelopment tax credits. Thus a community was designed utilizing many of the existing buildings and fixtures. The old prison chow hall was converted into a gym. Many of the townhouses and apartments have scenic views of the reclaimed guard towers. Signs such as the one warning against unauthorized visitation have been left intact. Even street names are reminiscent of the facility’s original function — Sallyport Street, Reformatory Way, etc.

Mowatt, who is currently working on a documentary based on the prison, compared the new development to what he experienced while incarcerated there. “The walkways are still the exact same, but they’re not the same,” he said. “They used to be dirty with dried up blood drops and a lot of cats. Now you just see it’s quiet and peaceful, and you’re like, Look at this. It’s creative. It’s artistic. Because it’s easy to just knock it down and bulldoze it. But to actually leave it up like this, it’s a good history lesson.” 


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