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Fairfax County plans new facility to store archaeological collections

A digital rendering shows the proposed collections facility (via Fairfax County)

A heating plant abandoned when the Lorton prison closed in 2001 could eventually host Fairfax County’s vast collection of artifacts and museum objects.

Located in the Workhouse Arts Center area, the building at 8941 Workhouse Road could be transformed with a second-level addition and upgrades to meet curation standards, allowing the county to hold over 3 million artifacts in a central location.

The project will go before the county’s Planning Commission at a 7:30 p.m. meeting today (Wednesday) as part of a public facilities review process. At this time, the locations housing archaeological and museum collections are at capacity, according to the county.

Currently, the artifacts and museum objects are on display at historic sites in the county and exhibits at the James Lee Community Center in West Falls Church, the Fairfax County Government Center, and other locations.

Some objects are also housed at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park facilities near Manassas, or on temporary display for events and festivals, such as Celebrate Fairfax.

The area where the former heating plant now sits was once used as a cattle shed and hay barn for inmates at the Occoquan Workhouse, which opened in 1910 with a farm operated by prisoners serving short sentences for non-violent offenses.

“Layers of fencing and other security features (most of which have recently been removed) came only later as higher security was required in the last quarter of the twentieth century,” a report says on the workhouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A Fairfax County archaeological report from Sept. 21, 2020, by senior archaeologist Aimee Wells says the workhouse’s shift to more of a medium-security prison changed the property’s use.

“The building that currently stands on the property was built in the mid-1990s as a heating plant on a concrete slab and was in use for less than a decade,” the report said.

The heating plant was decommissioned around 1998 as part of a gradual shutdown of the prison, according to the report.

The 31-foot-tall structure includes a 13,355-square-foot building. The plan currently being considered by the county calls for adding a 1,405-square-foot bump-out addition that’s nearly 21 feet tall.

“The building would include labs, storage, research rooms, offices, collections isolation rooms and the loading dock area, and a records room would be located in the bump-out addition,” a March 2022 staff report said about the project. “Site improvements include dumpster pad with screen, parking area, sidewalk/ADA accessible path, chain link fence along the site perimeter, and an access road connecting to the Workhouse Campus.”

Permits are expected to be sought in coming months through spring 2023, and construction would start, but it would rely on the next public bond cycle to finance it.

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