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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cold War Museum Could Rise Atop Old Bunker

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 50 years ago, they were the ultimate symbol of the Cold War: two dozen Nike anti-aircraft missiles, positioned less than an hour's drive from the nation's capital, designed to fire at approaching Soviet bombers.

Now, these missile bunkers in Lorton, Virginia, are covered with concrete slabs and buildings. Other than a roadside historical marker, there is little to indicate that amid the hills of Fairfax County, on the now-closed Lorton Correctional Complex, a piece of the Cold War once stood.

Francis Gary Powers Jr., son of one of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War, is eyeing the former missile site as a permanent home for a Cold War museum. And he's got backing from community leaders and Virginia legislators.

The idea has drawn preliminary support from both branches of Virginia's General Assembly.

Negotiations to transfer the 1,080-hectare Lorton site from the federal government to Fairfax County are ongoing. The county plans to transform most of the property, which housed prisoners until it was closed last year, into open space, parks, schools and recreation facilities. An additional 95 hectares of the Lorton site, now called Laurel Hills, will be developed to build about 700 town houses and single-family homes.

County Supervisor Gerald Hyland, whose district includes the Lorton tract, strongly supports locating the Cold War museum there.

"I certainly hope it becomes a reality," he said. "I think it's an excellent use of the Nike site and a way to preserve it.'' Combined with a national Army museum planned for Fort Belvoir, he said, the Cold War museum could be a very interesting attraction for the area.

But Hyland and supervisor Dana Kauffman of the neighboring district cautioned that the county has no funds to contribute to the museum.

Built in 1954, the Lorton bunkers were one of three missile batteries placed in Fairfax County and were part of a network of 20 sites that ringed Washington and Baltimore.

"This is just a perfect spot for our museum,'' Powers said, walking outside the Lorton site recently. "This is a piece of Cold War history. We can incorporate it into our exhibits.''

Since 1996, Powers, 36, has collected artifacts from around the world for his museum, currently a web site (www.coldwar.org) and a traveling exhibition that has been displayed in locations including Seattle, Norway and Berlin and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The collection, shipped from site to site, includes the helmet used by Powers' father, a spy-plane pilot shot down in the Soviet Union in 1960, as well as fallout shelter signs, pieces of the Berlin Wall and a sign from Checkpoint Charlie.

"If I had to count every item we had, it would be in the millions,'' said Powers, who is also president of the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce.

At the Lorton site, Powers said he hopes to use existing administrative buildings to house the exhibits, dividing them up by decade to chronicle events between World War II and 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down.

Powers' father was an icon during the Cold War. Shot down while flying a U-2 reconnaissance plane, Francis Gary Powers was captured and sentenced to a 10-year prison term. After intense negotiations, he was released two years later in exchange for a Soviet spy.

The younger Powers said his interest in the Cold War sprang from a desire to learn more about his father, who died in 1977, when his namesake was 12.

"I had to learn about him by reading about the U-2 incident,'' Powers said. "I realized that in order to understand him better, I had to learn about the Cold War.''

As he got older, Powers began visiting community groups and schools, giving lectures about his father. The response he received from some students got him thinking.

"I was giving lectures at high schools to talk about my dad and the U-2 incident,'' Powers said. "A lot of kids thought I was there to talk about the rock band.''

In 1996, Powers created the traveling Cold War Museum. Funds are raised through donations and revenue from a gift shop and a "spy tour'' of the Washington area conducted by Powers.

With a bricks-and-mortar museum, Powers said, he plans to create a central source of information and education on the Cold War era. Plans include archives and a research library.

The Smithsonian Institution has accepted the museum as an affiliate, allowing it to exhibit artifacts in the Smithsonian collection.

The museum has been welcomed by Cold War researchers, who say it would help the public gain access to the latest research. And residents near Lorton welcome the museum.

"Anything looks better than a prison out here,'' said Neal McBride, chairman of the Laurel Hills Task Force, a citizens group. "This place is just steeped in history. ... We're happy at the prospect of having a cultural and historical attraction like the museum.''