About the Workhouse Arts Center
Workhouse Prison to Workhouse Arts Center
The story of the Lorton Workhouse began just over 100 years ago at the turn of the twentieth century. At the instigation of President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1908 a special three-member Penal Commission was appointed to investigate the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at the District of Columbia jail and workhouse. The Progressive-era reform movement advocated training prisoners for a trade to enable them to obtain employment following their release, making prisons self-supporting through use of prison labor and providing a wholesome and uplifting environment.
The Committee recommended, and Congress approved, the purchase of a 1,155- acre tract north of the Occoquan River that was acquired in 1910. When the first 29 prisoners arrived by barge in the summer of 1910 from the District of Columbia, they were housed in tents on the Occoquan River. The first buildings were made of wood cut and built by the prisoners. The wooden buildings were gradually replaced during the 1920s by the Colonial Revival buildings on the site today. The prisoners made the bricks, fired them in kilns on the nearby river and built the dormitories, mess hall and administration buildings. A Women’s Workhouse, also made of wood, opened nearby in June 1912 to accommodate about 100 prisoners.
The Workhouse developed into an agricultural work camp. It was intended to be self sufficient and over time developed extensive agricultural operations, including cultivated fields, pasture land, an orchard and cannery, a poultry farm, hog ranch, slaughterhouse, dairy, blacksmith shop, sawmill; and feed, hay and storage barns. The first prisoners at the Workhouse were misdemeanants—men who has been arrested and jailed for public drunkenness, petty theft, simple assault and non-support. Women were sentenced for solicitation, prostitution, disorderly conduct, vagrancy and intoxication. Beginning in July 1917 and continuing until November 1917, 72 members of the National Women’s Party were incarcerated at the Workhouse for protests over voting rights for women, including one of the movement’s founders, Lucy Burns.
During the ninety-some years the District of Columbia’s Correctional Complex was operational, the area in use increased to over 3200 acres. In addition to the Workhouse, a Reformatory, Penitentiary and Youth Center were built on the property. The Workhouse officially closed in February 1968. The majority of the buildings were turned over to the D.C. Department of Public Health for an Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center. In 1983 the Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center was closed, fences and guard towers were built and the buildings were again used as a medium-security prison. By the late 1980s, the prison was known more for over-crowding and disorganization than the rehabilitation program Roosevelt had wished for. In fact, the prison was in such a state of disrepair that it became representative of the nation’s difficulties with correctional facilities. In 1997, Federal legislation was passed requiring the Lorton Correctional Facility to be closed by December 31, 2001. The last prisoner left Lorton in November 2001.
After the Lorton Correctional Complex closed, 2324 acres were sold to Fairfax County, Virginia in 2002 for 4.2 million dollars. The County undertook a comprehensive adaptive re-use study for this prime location. In 2002 the Lorton Arts Foundation put forward a plan to transform the former prison facility into a cultural arts center and, in July 2004, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning of a 55-acre portion of the former correctional facility to become the Workhouse Arts Center. In 2005, the site was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. After several years of planning, adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of the historic buildings, the Workhouse Arts Center, a project of the Lorton Arts Foundation, opened to the public in September 2008.
The Workhouse currently consists of six (6) artist studio buildings, the main galleries and the recently opened Youth Arts Center. We support more than 100 professional and emerging artists, providing them affordable studios and galleries in which to exhibit their work. As opposed to most passive arts experiences, visitors are encouraged to interact with the artists when they visit. In addition to visual arts, the Workhouse Arts Center is home to performing arts, including theater, film, musical and dance performances. The Education Department supports both the visual and performing arts, offering over 150 classes and workshops each quarter, in a broad spectrum of art disciplines.
Future plans for the Workhouse include a 900-person Event Center, a 1000-seat amphitheater, 300-seat Workhouse Theatre, restaurants, apartments, Music Barn and garden/horticultural area. Several other buildings on the site, yet to be renovated, may provide for other activities such as a Visitors Center, a blacksmith shop, theatre scene shops and rehearsal space, among other possibilities.
The Lorton Arts Foundation has established, in the Workhouse, the region’s most distinctive cultural arts center. When all phases of the renovation are complete, the Workhouse Arts Center will consist of 234,000 square feet of adaptively reused buildings and 60,000 square feet in new construction and the site will include 40 acres of open space. The Workhouse Arts Center’s crucial role in the cultural development of Fairfax County is clear to all who visit, finally fulfilling the prison’s original intention to provide a peaceful and positive environment for all.