The story of the Workhouse began just over 100 years ago at the turn of the twentieth century. A special three-member Penal Commission was appointed in 1908, at the insistence of President Theodore Roosevelt, to investigate the over-crowded and unsanitary conditions present at the District of Columbia jail and workhouse. Meanwhile, a Progressive-era reform movement advocated training prisoners for a trade to enable them to obtain employment following their release. The goal was to make prisons self-supporting through the use of prison labor and by providing a wholesome and uplifting environment for those incarcerated.
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 that was 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 approximately 100 prisoners.
The Workhouse gradually became an agricultural work camp. It was intended to be self-sufficient and eventually 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 had 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. From July until November of 1917, 72 members of the National Women’s Party were incarcerated at the Workhouse for protests advocating for women’s right to vote, One of the movement’s founders, Lucy Burns, was incarcerated at the Workhouse during this time.
The area in use by the District of Columbia’s Correctional Complex increased to over 3200 acres during its over 90 years of operation. 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 for which Roosevelt had promoted. 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 required the Lorton Correctional Facility to be closed by December 31, 2001. The last prisoner left the complex in November of 2001.
In 2002, 2,324 acres were sold to Fairfax County, Virginia for 4.2 million dollars. Afterwards, a comprehensive adaptive re-use study was completed due to the site’s prime location next to the Occoquan River and major highways. In 2002, the then Lorton Arts Foundation, Inc. proposed a plan to transform the former prison facility into a cultural arts center. 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 July of 2004. A year later, 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 opened to the public in September 2008.
The Workhouse currently consists of six (6) artist studio buildings, the main galleries, and the W-3 Theatre. We support more than 100 professional and emerging artists by providing them affordable studios and galleries to exhibit their work. Instead of only viewing the art, 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; musical theater; film; music; and dance performances. The Workhouse also offers over 800 arts education classes and workshops in a broad spectrum of art disciplines.