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Ground Under Repair

The transformation of Laurel Hill is a walk through American history
Laurel Hill Photo by Lexey Swall.

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You can play the seventh hole at Laurel Hill Golf Club a dozen times and never notice it. 

No one would blame you: No. 7 is a devilish, driveable par 4 with a tight green some 270-plus yards away. If ever there was a time to focus on the scoring opportunity at hand, this is it. 

But save a glance for what’s tucked behind the line of trees flanking the left side of the fairway. There lay the bones of a piece of American history far more devastating than any number you could ring up on the scorecard. 

Those quiet, rusted buildings are what’s left of a Cold War–era missile facility constructed to protect Washington, D.C., from a Soviet air attack. The nuclear warheads are gone, taken by armed guards to an undisclosed location. The missile elevators that plunged some 60 feet below ground have been filled in and welded shut.

That’s merely one in a series of remarkable iterations of this bucolic Virginia plot. Archaeologists and historians have discovered real connections to General George Washington and the Revolutionary War, to Civil War skirmishes and a Union Army encampment. It later became the testing ground for an idealistic vision from President Theodore Roosevelt, a famous flashpoint in the women’s suffrage movement and home to a notorious maximum-security penitentiary, the remains of which now run along the back nine of one of the best municipal golf courses in the United States. 

Old prison grounds. Photo by Lexey Swall.

Roosevelt’s reformatory

In his typical fashion, Roosevelt saw an opportunity few others did. The appalling conditions of the District of Columbia Jail and Workhouse had become a public mess and Roosevelt had his own unique solution. 

“The report sets forth vividly the really outrageous conditions in the workhouse and jail,” said Roosevelt during a speech to Congress in 1909. “The overcrowding is great in the workhouse, and greater still in the jail where, of the 600 inmates, 500 are serving sentences in absolute idleness, with no employment and no exercise.” 

The commission recommended a complete change in rehabilitation philosophy. It moved away from a traditional prison with cellblocks, instead favoring an open-air concept with dormitories. The facility would have no walls and no guard towers. The theory was classic Roosevelt: Inmates could be rehabilitated through a hard day’s work and access to nature, fresh air and sunlight. 

In 1910, Congress acted on the recommendation and purchased an old 1,100-acre plantation just south of Washington, D.C., in Lorton, Virginia, locally known as Laurel Hill. The property was once the home of Major William Lindsay, a former aide-de-camp to Washington during the Revolutionary War. The name Laurel Hill comes from the original Lindsay family estate in Northern Ireland. This is where Roosevelt’s progressive reformatory would be built.

At its heart, the facility was more of a working farm than a prison, designed to be self-sufficient. The inmates tilled the fields, harvested the crops, fed the hogs and ran the dairy, which at one point supplied much of the milk used by Washington, D.C., public schools. The inmates also manned the blacksmith shop, a printing plant and a furniture factory, and operated eight kilns, where they produced the millions of bricks that would be used to build nearly every facility at Lorton Prison. As evidence of their quality craftsmanship, many of the structures still stand near the golf course today, including a baseball stadium with brick bleachers that has hosted legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Louis Armstrong. Frank Sinatra once put on a show there with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Yet all was not well on Laurel Hill. It still housed dangerous criminals. And as time passed, Lorton drifted from its original mission. The progressive prison tumbled away from its agricultural roots to become one of the most violent and drug-ridden prisons in the country. Many point to November 1917 as the beginning.

An unforgettable night

Laurel Hill Golf Club recently hosted a Women & Golf Reception, complete with free clinics, guest speakers and swag bags. Little more than 100 years earlier, conditions were very different for women on this property.

On a frigid winter’s day in January 1917, a suffragette protested in front of the White House with a simple sign asking, “How long must women wait for liberty?” Nearly every day over the following six months, members of the National Woman’s Party relentlessly picketed in front of the White House. The protest and subsequent press coverage became an embarrassment for President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and on June 26, 1917, six women were put on trial and convicted of obstructing traffic. The women were warned by the court of their “unpatriotic, almost treasonable behavior,” fined $25 and sentenced to three days in jail. After refusing to pay the fine for the trumped-up charges, they became the first women in the nation to serve prison time for demanding suffrage.

Undeterred, the women became even more defiant. The protests increased and the standoff between the suffragettes and the Wilson administration escalated. The women endured mob violence, had their banners and clothes torn and were assaulted as uniformed police officers stood by and did nothing. The suffragettes continued to be arrested and sentenced to jail. Most were sent to Lorton, including 40 women who were arrested in November 1917.

The women sent to Lorton were led by Lucy Burns, who demanded they be designated as political prisoners. Upon their arrival, the women were treated harshly and ordered to perform demeaning jobs, such as sewing underwear for male prisoners. Some refused and were sent to solitary confinement. The women slept under blankets that were washed once a year and served food that was often spoiled or infested with worms or insects. As such, the women turned to their ultimate, and perhaps only, weapon: hunger strikes. 

Refusing to eat the horrific prison food, the women set in motion what many historians consider one of the most pivotal moments in the women’s suffrage movement. On the night of Nov. 14, 1917, after a weeklong hunger strike, Burns and 26 other women were sent to “the punishment house,” where a group of prison guards reportedly assaulted and force-fed the women. The guards tied the women down, pinched their nostrils until they gasped for air and, when the women opened their mouths to breathe, shoved food down their throats. The abuse the women endured that night  was reported in newspapers nationwide and would become famously known as the “Night of Terror.”

Between June and December 1917, approximately 170 women from the National Woman’s Party were jailed at Lorton. In January 1918, all suffragettes were released after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned their sentences, citing the First Amendment right to protest. A little over two years later, in August 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Not long after the Night of Terror, Lorton faded from the national stage and returned to relative obscurity, where it would remain for the next 30 years. But with the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an escalating cold war, the country’s focus would once again return to Lorton. 

Red scare

Decades before course architect Bill Love and his partner, Brian Kington, began the work of shoveling bunkers and moving earth to create Laurel Hill Golf Club, a different kind of excavation took place. In the early 1950s, local kids riding the bus to school noticed men digging a massive hole in the ground at Lorton. As the bus would pass, the kids would stretch their necks to try to get a view of the place. What were they doing out there?

Rumors swirled throughout the construction, and in 1954 the locals had their answer: The Department of Defense had built the nation’s first Nike anti-aircraft missile site at Lorton. For years, students across the country had prepared for an air attack by scrambling under their desks and covering their heads. Now the military had prepared for a Soviet attack by constructing 13 fully operational anti-aircraft missile sites around Washington, D.C., reminiscent of the perimeter of forts that protected the capital during the Civil War. The security system was code-named Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory.

When the Army opened the Lorton base in 1955, it initially held 24 Nike-Ajax missiles and was no longer a secret facility. In fact, the Nike site welcomed the public and even held weekly open houses. The government wanted to show off its latest symbol of American military power and hosted many foreign dignitaries at the site. In 1958, a new missile with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead, called Nike-Hercules, had been developed. Soon after, the open houses ended. Security was significantly increased as the property was converted to enable the launch of the new nuclear missiles. 

Over the next two decades, the Nike site at Lorton reflected a significant shift in national defense strategy: from protecting against long-range bombers to guarding against intercontinental ballistic missiles. As such, the funding and resources dedicated to the Nike site at Lorton were gradually reduced until the Army closed the facility in 1974. The radar towers were removed and the nuclear missiles were taken away by helicopter to a covert location. The property was eventually absorbed by Lorton Prison and converted to a juvenile-detention facility, which remained in operation until the late 1990s. 

Today, the only Nikes left at Laurel Hill are on the feet of players attacking accessible pins. But just off No. 7, players can steal a glance at the metal doors covering what once were missile elevators armed with the world’s most devastating weapons. The remaining structures have surrendered to ivy’s octopus embrace, and in recent years vandals have ransacked the place. They have smashed every window, spray-painted every wall and destroyed virtually everything in every building, as if they were in some post-apocalyptic scene frantically searching for anything to help them survive.

The fall of Lorton

By the time the Army packed up its missiles in the mid-1970s, golf was the farthest thing from the minds of anyone associated with the Laurel Hill area. Lorton Prison was rotting from the inside out. Conditions were awful. Escapes were common. Violence and corruption were widespread, and the only thing keeping officials from dropping their own legislative bomb on Lorton was that there was nowhere else to put Washington, D.C.’s most dangerous men.

As the years wore on, what began as an agricultural workhouse designed to house 600 nonviolent inmates had ballooned to hold more than 7,000 prisoners. More than 70 percent were repeat felons, and the prison was 44 percent over capacity. Gone were the agricultural training programs and opportunities for prisoners to learn a trade. What remained was a legendarily dangerous place where, instead of a skill, prisoners merely learned how to survive. Lorton Prison had become exactly what it was designed to replace. 

Crime and corruption were so bad at Lorton that the FBI announced that it was putting seven special agents and three Assistant United States Attorneys full-time on crimes originating from inside prison walls. Ironically, the drug treatment program was cancelled on the same day FBI agents arrested a handful of Lorton prison guards for smuggling crack into the facility.

As simple as it was to get drugs inside, it may have been easier for inmates to get out. In 1972 alone, nearly 80 prisoners escaped from Lorton. During one prison break, four men broke into the home on a farm nearby. After being bound and gagged, the family watched as the prisoners raided their refrigerator and drank their whiskey before vanishing into the night.

In 1975, a court declared Lorton Prison a public nuisance and a training ground for career criminals. Recidivism rates were as high as 90 percent. After four maximum-security prisoners overdosed on heroin in one week, The Washington Post reported that “inmates can get drugs more readily in Lorton than they can on the streets.” Murder and violent beatings were commonplace. According to former deputy warden Ron Lipscomb, a favorite prisoner weapon was a double-sided razor blade fastened to the end of a toothbrush.  The old axiom was, “You’re better off being caught with a knife than without one.”

Sadly, the next 20 years brought more of the same. In 1993, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said, “The ease with which inmates can obtain drugs at Lorton is a public scandal.” 

By 1995, Lorton’s annual operating budget exceeded $240 million. The prison was overcrowded and outdated, with elected officials calling for it to be shut down. Six years later, in November 2001, the final prisoner was transferred out and Lorton Prison closed its gates for good.

Return to Laurel Hill

When Lorton Prison was built in the early 1900s, government officials intentionally placed it in picturesque Virginia farm country. By the end of the century, the inevitable suburban sprawl had finally reached its walls. The wide-open horse farms and peaceful fields of crops had been supplanted by a rapidly growing community filled with residential developments and the constant buzz of traffic on Interstate 95.

With suburbia came the demands of tax-paying homeowners and local businesses. For years, residents of neighboring communities voiced complaints about Lorton Prison and its negative impact on their property values. And Fairfax County, the first county in the United States to reach a six-figure median income, wanted something better than a decaying prison sitting in the heart of one of its communities. 

After the shutdown in 2001, county officials purchased the land, including the prison and the rest of the buildings, and decided on an adaptive reuse plan for the property. The master plan included renovating the old buildings into usable spaces for the community, such as housing and retail developments. It also included a school, an arts center and land earmarked for a golf course. But not just any golf course—county officials made it clear that they did not want another run-of-the-mill muni.

“They told us they wanted a championship golf course,” says Love. 

After walking the property for the first time, Love and Kington knew the old prison farm was a perfect setting for a golf course. It was quintessential Virginia, with 300 acres of rolling hills, natural drainage and dramatic elevation changes. Despite the growth in the area, this sliver of the property kept its rustic character, with no homes or major roads to distract the eye. “You don’t feel like you have any encroachment,” says Love. “It’s wide-open. That’s what you don’t get at the private clubs around here.”

Even before Love and Kington began the serious work of site analysis and routing, they landed on a specific goal: Laurel Hill would host the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. “Getting [one of the top] amateur tournaments in the country…was definitely on our minds before we even started working on the design,” says Kington.

But after doing countless routings, Love hit a snag. He realized that for Laurel Hill to reach its potential, it needed more land. “The original property we were given to work with didn’t include where holes five and six are today,” explains Love. “It’s never an ideal situation asking a client for more land, but we knew they wanted a championship-level course, and the best way to get there was to expand. They said yes.”

As in their previous work—including the Lake and Ocean courses at Olympic Club in San Francisco—Love and Kington focused on allowing the character of the land to dictate the design. Well aware of the significance of the property, they embraced creating a golf course to reflect that history. They placed the first green directly next to an old grain silo, and the fifth hole plays alongside an abandoned prison agricultural nursery. No. 7 skirts the former Nike missile site. The 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th holes feature the remains of Lorton Prison, with dramatic views of the guard towers. County officials loved it.

Love and Kington began construction in the winter of 2004 and moved quickly. Beyond removing nearly 2,000 tons of lead from what was once a prison guard shooting range at the 15th hole, the bulldozers largely were kept at bay. “We didn’t move much dirt,” says Love. “And we didn’t clear many trees. Our goal on nearly every project is to identify and highlight the natural features of the site and allow the golf course to reveal itself.”

They pulled back the curtain in October 2005 to rave reviews. Laurel Hill quickly landed alongside Torrey Pines and Bethpage in top public-course rankings. From a design standpoint, Love and Kington achieved everything they planned for the course. 

“We wanted 18 distinct holes and a challenging finish,” says Love. “And that’s exactly what we got.” 

Architects Bill Love and Brian Kington didn’t move much dirt; the land was already ideal for golf. Photo by Lexey Swall.
Architects Bill Love and Brian Kington didn’t move much dirt; the land was already ideal for golf.

A different kind of history

Just eight years after the first tee shot was struck, Love and Kington were standing in the gallery at Laurel Hill watching the 2014 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. On the last day of the tournament, the title match came down to the final hole. On the tee at the par-5, 562-yard 18th were two future professionals: Michael Kim and Jordan Niebrugge. Both men split the fairway with their drives. Kim, down one, needed birdie and was forced to go for the green in two. After his long approach found the water protecting the green, Niebrugge played it safe and got up-and-down for the win.

The dramatic finish was precisely what Love and Kington envisioned when designing the closing holes at Laurel Hill. “The way that tournament ended was surreal,” says Kington. “We were saying to ourselves, 

‘Did this actually play out the way we scripted it?’”

It was the latest chapter in the remarkable history of Laurel Hill. The man keeping the book these days is Gene Orrico, the course’s director of golf. With an easy blue-collar charm and unmistakable New Jersey accent, Orrico has been on the job since inception, helping nurture Laurel Hill from a grand idea into one of the top municipal courses in the country.

From the steps of the clubhouse, Orrico has the ideal view of a once-again idyllic piece of land. The clubhouse was built on the highest point of the property, close to the former Nike missile site’s command center. “That’s where the big red button was,” says Kington. It also had a red phone with a direct line to the White House. The phone still sits in Orrico’s office. 

The guard towers of Lorton Prison have a much more leisurely watch these days, with the good fortune of turning to the cheerful activity on a beloved golf course. Photo by Lexey Swall
The guard towers of Lorton Prison have a much more leisurely watch these days, with the good fortune of turning to the cheerful activity on a beloved golf course.