The front of the Lucy Burns Museum looks much like any other history museum.
Panels with text and photos illustrating the troubled history of the Lorton Workhouse prison line the walls to the left of the museum’s entrance. Similar displays tracing the fight for women’s voting rights can be found to the right, complemented by statues adorned with the suffragists’ signature purple, gold, and white sashes.
A customer service desk stocked with gift shop memorabilia and informational pamphlets occupies the center of the sprawling room.
However, visitors who venture to the back of the museum will encounter a more unusual sight: narrow hallways lined with restored jail cells, each of them furnished with rigid metal platforms that once served as bunk beds.
One cell in particular captures the intersection of the two topics at the heart of the Lucy Burns Museum with dummies arranged to show a young woman getting force-fed, a static recreation of the treatment that suffragists received when they were imprisoned at the Workhouse.
On a ledge attached to the cell door sits a quartet of framed photos and paper placards identifying the portrait subjects as the museum’s namesake, along with fellow activists Dora Lewis, Alice Paul, and Rose Winslow.
Tension between those women’s achievements and the Workhouse’s decidedly less admirable legacy animates the Lucy Burns Museum, making it a vital addition to the Workhouse Arts Center that has taken over the former prison complex.
Officially opened to the public on Jan. 25 with a grand opening scheduled for May 9, the Lucy Burns Museum furthers Fairfax County’s goals of transforming Lorton and the rest of South County into a destination for historical and cultural tourism.
“It’s a fantastic occasion, to see the opening of this museum,” former Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said at a preview event on Jan. 23. “…Financially, it was so difficult to make anything happen here, so today is a real success story, and there are many people who are here who deserve a lot of credit for making this happen.”
Among the people responsible for turning the Lucy Burns Museum from an idea into a reality are husband-and-wife donors Richard Hausler and Lyndon Skelly-Hausler.
As the CEO and co-founder of the Arlington-based developer Insight Property Group, Hausler started talking with local business associates and brainstorming possible ways to repurpose the Workhouse in the late 1990s after federal legislators ordered that the Lorton Correctional Facility close by Dec. 31, 2001.
Prisoners built the first Workhouse buildings on 1,155 acres of land purchased by Congress in 1910 after the existing District of Columbia Jail came under investigation for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, according to the Workhouse Arts Center.
Spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, the new correctional facilities were originally envisioned as a reform-focused alternative to traditional prisons with a self-sufficient agricultural work camp to give inmates an opportunity to learn farming and other trades.
Over the years, the Workhouse grew to encompass more than 3,200 acres with the addition of a reformatory in the 1920s, a maximum-security penitentiary in the 1930s, and a youth center in 1960.
The prison complex hosted a variety of inmates, from famed criminals like Watergate operative G. Gordon Libby to activists like Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky, who were arrested for Vietnam War protests in the 1960s.
72 suffragists were imprisoned in the Occoquan Women’s Workhouse for demonstrating in front of the White House in 1917, including 32 women who were brought in on Nov. 14 and assaulted by prison guards after objecting to the facility’s conditions. Known subsequently as the Night of Terror, that day helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of giving voting rights to women.
As the campus expanded and became more crowded, the Workhouse’s founding rehabilitation-oriented mission was forgotten, and the facilities became so problematic that Congress passed legislation in 1997 ordering their closure.
The last prisoner was transferred from the Lorton Correctional Facility in November 2001.
After the federal government sold 2,324 acres of the former prison complex to Fairfax County in 2001, Hausler joined other local community members on a board tasked with determining what to do with the land.
Hausler and the other board members ultimately proposed that the complex’s 55-acre Workhouse section be turned into an arts center, since the property’s eventful history included hosting the Lorton Jazz Festival, which drew singers like Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald to perform for inmates.
In 2001, the board morphed into the Lorton Arts Foundation, later renamed the Workhouse Arts Foundation, and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the Workhouse property’s rezoning in July 2004.
The Workhouse Arts Center opened to the public in September 2008 with art galleries, dance studios, music rooms, a theater, outdoor performance and event space, and six studio buildings for visiting professional and emerging artists, along with art classes and workshops.
The Lucy Burns Museum has undergone a more protracted journey into existence.
When it first embarked on its ambitious revitalization of the former prison complex, the Lorton Arts Foundation took out a loan to fund the project, but the Great Recession in 2008 hampered the organization’s ability to pay back the loan, according to Bulova.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors then stepped in to assist with building renovations and funding for the center, convincing the bank that authored the loan to reduce the amount of money that the foundation owed.
With renovation of the 10,000 square-foot barracks building in which it is housed completed in 2018, the Lucy Burns Museum cost approximately $2.5 million and was primarily financed by private donors, led by Hausler and Skelly-Hausler, who contributed more than $100,000.
“It’s very exciting after all these years of working and trying to get all this together,” Skelly-Hausler said after touring the museum on Jan. 23. “I just am very, very blown away about the content, and I think a lot of young women are going to be very excited to visit this museum, and so, I’m really happy it’s here.”
Overseen by docents and volunteers, the Lucy Burns Museum is open to the public for free from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays and 12:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tours of the preserved cell block are available for $5 for individuals over 12 and for free for kids 12 and under.
Workhouse Arts Center board of directors chairman Kevin Greenlief says the museum is a testament to what is possible through renovation and rehabilitation, and he sees it as an anchor for the center’s evolving campus.
The Lucy Burns Museum and Workhouse Arts Center are also part of a Northern Virginia Arts and Cultural District that Fairfax County created in July 2017 in cooperation with the Town of Occoquan and Occoquan Regional Park, which will be home to the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial that broke ground on Nov. 14, 2019.
Expected to be completed later this year with a dedication on Aug. 26, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s certification, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will commemorate the victims of the Night of Terror while also serving as the U.S.’s first national memorial for the suffrage movement.
The area’s proximity to Mount Vernon and the National Museum of the United States Army, which is scheduled to open on June 4, enhance South County’s new identity as a tourist draw and a bastion of history and culture, a far cry from when its reputation was tied to the Lorton prison.
“A lot of history happened right here in this jail, but there’s also a lot of history in this part of the county, a lot of it not to be proud of,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “To see now what this community has become should make all of us proud and should encourage people to come down here and see the massive changes that have happened.”
Now board chair after being elected to succeed Bulova in November, McKay previously served as Lee District supervisor and grew up in the Route 1 corridor as a native of Fairfax County. He still recalls driving past the prison when it was still operational and hearing stories about what went on in there.
He hopes visitors at the Lucy Burns Museum see it not just as a record of the past, but also a guide for the future, as the country continues to grapple with criminal and social justice issues.
Notably, just two days after the Lucy Burns Museum opened to the public, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in the U.S. Constitution when the House of Delegates voted 58-40 to adopt a resolution from the state Senate on Jan. 27.
While federal courts need to determine whether the amendment can still be made official since the deadline for ratification technically passed in 1982, legislators and advocates celebrated the vote as a historic gesture to enshrine gender equality in the Constitution.
“History gives us the opportunity as a community, and certainly as political leaders, to make sure that we never make some of the same mistakes that were made in the past and that we learn from those opportunities,” McKay said. “…We can’t stop towards a fight for equality, towards a fight for equal rights, towards criminal justice reform, towards equity policies in the county.”