The story of the Workhouse began 110 years ago at the turn of the twentieth century. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a penal commission to investigate the over-crowded and unsanitary conditions present at the District of Columbia Jail. Congress approved the purchase of a 1,155- acre tract of land north of the Occoquan River. The first prisoners arrived in 1910, built wooden structures from trees along the bank of the river which were replaced by brick structures in the 1920s.
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 area in use by the District of Columbia’s Correctional Complex increased to over 3,200 acres during its 91 years of operation.
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. In 2002, a group of community leaders 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, dance studios, music rooms, outdoor performance and event space, and the W-3 Theatre. We support more than 100 professional and emerging artists by providing them affordable studios and galleries in which 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. Each year the Workhouse Arts Center provides more than 100 exhibitions, 300 performances, and multiple large-scale community events for the region.
The Workhouse Arts Center is operated by the Workhouse Arts Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The organization survives on income in the form of tuition and ticket sales, generous donations from the surrounding community and DC Metropolitan Region, and generous in-kind support from Fairfax County.