Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center is a transformed federal gray elephant: This 1920 munitions factory once produced 10,000 MK-14 torpedoes. Later, dinosaur bones for the Smithsonian were stored here, as well as congressional archives of the Nuremberg Trials.
In 1973 the City of Alexandria approved a proposal to convert the building into artists' studios and workshops. Artists moved in the following year, and by 1983, Washington architects Keyes, Condon and Florance had redesigned the interior space.
Today, the 72,000-square-foot building houses the Art Center's 84 studios and 160 artists; the 40-year-old Art League, Inc., a nonprofit membership cooperative, with juried monthly shows; the Art League School with 2,500 students each semester, and national and international workshops; and the Alexandria Archeological Lab.
Art League President Marian van Landingham, who led the initial effort to convert the factory into art studios, intended for the artists' spacious, well-lit working areas to be both private studios and public galleries - a bit like colonial Williamsburg where craftsmen interact with the public. "People love to watch other people work and artists have large powers of concentration," van Landingham explains. "You also get to meet the people who buy your work."
A third-floor studio features two adjacent walls of two-story windows overlooking the waterfront and waves of the river. Artists are at work all around: painters, printmakers, sculptors, potters, fiber glass artists, photographers, jewelers, even a musical-instrument maker.
The information booth - near an 18-foot green torpedo in the main entranceway - offers flyers about the Torpedo Factory in multiple languages.
Out back, the waterfront is filled with restaurants and fountains. Yachts laze by the docks overlooking the Potomac, where torpedoes once left port headed for World War II battleships.
-- Jennifer Mar
On weekends the place functions more like a commercial gallery than a cluster of working studios: more selling, less making. Still, on weekdays it's a great place to take preschoolers, or others who happen to have a day off from school. Then, through the studios' glass walls, you'll
be able to watch potters throwing, photographers printing, painters daubing and weavers warping. Some love to talk as they work. If you do go on a weekend, plan to arrive at 10 a.m. or expect to suffer crowds and less quality interaction with the artists.
Many shops have small, inexpensive handmade items for sale - pins, pencils, sketch pads and jewelry - making the Torpedo Factory an excellent alternative to a mall when kids are looking for gifts for friends, teachers or others. The wharf out back is excellent for strolling. There's a food court right on campus, and the neighborhood is filled with restaurants, shops, galleries and other attractions.
You can picnic on either side of the building. Don't miss Studio 327: The Alexandria Archeology Center has a lab where archaeologists investigating the city's history work and explain their projects.
-- by John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: Go early. Parking's a bear; expect to park at a pay lot. Orient yourself at the first-floor information kiosk.
Nearby: George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the Lyceum, Gadsby's Tavern, Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee, Fort Ward Museum.