LORTON, Va. — The footsteps still echo off the old brick walls lining the walkway; the big, steel door still creaks open, then clangs shut. Its empty, claustrophobic cells still give a viewer the creeps.
But the maximum security facility at Lorton Reformatory closed in 2001, and the rows of jail cells will soon undergo the renovation and rehabilitation that have turned other buildings at the site into modern, residential apartments and commercial space.
“It used to be a prison, but it is not like a prison you and I would think of; it really is a beautiful, inspiring space,” said Jack Perkins, manager of the Liberty at Lorton project.
The development is transforming the former campus-like penal facility, built in 1910, into a handsome community replete with elegant club house and swimming pool — much of it bracketed with solid brick walls and barred windows.
“Even the bricks themselves were made by prison labor. There were several brick kilns. That was part of the work the prisoners did,” Perkins said.
Why would anyone rent an apartment in a renovated prison? Charlie Brooks, a retired manager in retail, jumped at the chance earlier this year to rent one of the first available apartments to share with his wife.
“It was kind of funny that when I mentioned it to all my friends, they said, ‘You’re going to live in a prison?’ and they just laughed at us. Basically, my wife is very good at decorating,” Brooks said.
Rents on the 165 apartments — all in historic buildings — range from $1,100 to $2,400 per month. Town homes and single detached houses are also being built, as well as commercial space in the prison’s former power plant.
Brooks is delighted with his apartment, and dismisses any concern about ghosts on the old prison grounds, even on Halloween. But Lorton has seen its share of sorrow and woe.
“A hundred years ago, during the women’s suffrage movement, in 1917, Lucy Burns, a famous Washington socialite … was arrested for protesting outside the White House,” Perkins said. Burns was put in the Lorton women’s prison.
Perkins insists he’s seen no paranormal activity within the bricks and bars, but others aren’t so sure.
“This prison … is really historic,” said a security guard manning the steel gate to maximum security. “If you come during nighttime you see most of the events happening.”