This Art Center is So Good it’s Criminal

From its humble beginnings as a rehabilitation center to its time as a correctional facility to its current form as the Workhouse Arts Center & Museum, this capsule for change in Lorton Virginia is 55 acres of land that represent hard work, craft, and pivotal movements.

Originally established as the Lorton Reformatory to train misdemeanants (men who were arrested and jailed for public drunkenness or petty theft), its convicts were taught trade work through prison labor to better help them obtain employment and self-sufficiency once released.

By providing a wholesome and uplifting environment, the workhouse gradually became an agricultural work camp complete with cultivated fields, blacksmith shop, sawmill, a hog ranch and dairy, and an orchard and cannery.

Starting with just 29 prisoners, the living and workspaces were handmade, first of wood then later improved with brick, all made by the inmates themselves.

In June of 1912, a women’s workhouse was built to hold 100 women prisoners. While men were arrested for minor crimes, women were sent to the workhouse for prostitution, homelessness, and disorderly conduct.

From July until November of 1917, 72 members of the National Women’s Party were incarcerated at the workhouse for protests advocating women’s rights to vote. Known as the “Silent Sentinels” after silently protesting in front of the White House, they were mistreated through acts of humiliation, force feeding, and much more. Because of what they endured (along with many other women around the US at the time), the 19th amendment allowing women to vote was finally ratified.

While open, talented musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra stopped by to play for the inmates. However, the closing of the workhouse in February 1968 was a sign that the grounds were no longer an uplifting place for prisoners. By 1983, the workhouse had become a medium-security prison and was considered overcrowded and disorganized (becoming representative of the nation’s difficulties with correctional facilities) before ultimately being shutdown in December of 2001.

In 2002, a plan began to transform the former prison reformatory into an upcycled non-profit arts center. The plan was accepted in 2004 and, in hopes of capsuling history, the buildings were all restored, keeping their original structures. Four years later the Workhouse Arts Center officially opened to the Fairfax County community.

Today, peppered across campus are 26 brick buildings, 65 art studios, and 12 galleries which host temporary exhibits throughout the year, as well as a permanent exhibit dedicated to its past.

Classes are available for anyone interested in culinary arts, drawing, design, music, painting, photography, textile design, fiber art, and theatre classes — no experience required. Visitors can participate in various types of yoga and dancing under the Art of Movement activities or Workhouse Military in the Arts Initiative, specifically for military service members and their families.

While anyone can visit Wednesday through Sunday, one of their main community-attracting events is their 2nd Saturday Art Walk, an open studio night free to the public.

Hayley Harris enjoys writing from experience, immersion, and anything which gives her a feeling. She is a freelance writer located on the east coast.

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One response to This Art Center is So Good it’s Criminal

Very nice. I didn’t know that much of the history of the Art Center, but living in Virginia in the 1995, 2005 and back again in 2017, I was a witness to its slow evolution from detention facility to empty to Art.

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