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.
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.
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, pasture land, 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.
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.
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 cell blocks 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.
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.
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 which served as the home of William Lindsay, a Revolutionary War patriot. The home later served as the residence of the Reformatory Superintendent. The 80-acre Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Area has remained vacant since 2002. The community, the County, and The Alexander Company developed a master plan in 2009.