Lorton Prison Reformed Into Arts Center

The former D.C. Correctional Facility, above, with watchtower at far right, is being converted into an arts center.
The former D.C. Correctional Facility, above, with watchtower at far right, is being converted into an arts center. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

On a recent day as the sun blazed, a construction crew at the new arts center in Lorton drove a bulldozer straight toward one of the most visible reminders of this site's past: a forbidding fence that penned in prisoners when the buildings were part of the sprawling D.C. Correctional Facility.

For more than five years, a private arts foundation has worked to transform the prison's old workhouse off Ox Road into a gleaming arts center with studios, galleries and performance space. The $26 million Workhouse Arts Center will officially open next year, but in the coming weeks residents will glimpse the first major activity there since the foundation's members leased the property from Fairfax County last year.

The center has launched a schedule of painting, drawing and yoga classes in a borrowed space at a nearby shopping center; students and teachers will likely move into renovated classrooms on the 55-acre site later this fall. On Sept. 28, a black-tie fundraising gala will feature a performance by dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, an early supporter.

"This is an opening celebration to cultivate people and show them this is what we're doing, and this is the level of quality for both emerging artists and professionals they can expect here," said Tina Leone, the foundation's executive officer.

The center is the second major public amenity to open at the former Lorton penal complex, which sprawled over more than 2,000 acres in southeastern Fairfax County and housed thousands of offenders before it was shuttered in 2001.

Since that time, the county's Park Authority has taken responsibility for most of that land, building a golf course, which has a waiting list for memberships. Park officials also hope to partner with private groups to build a sportsplex and barn for riding lessons. The arts center will be in brick buildings that used to house lower-risk prisoners, called the Occoquan Workhouse. The county has yet to find a developer for the most visually prominent acreage, the land on which the penitentiary building and looming watchtower still sits.

The closing of the penal complex and the region's overall development boom fostered a blossoming in Lorton, a part of the county some residents thought had long been neglected.

Signs up and down Ox Road now advertise new subdivisions of million-dollar houses near the area now called Laurel Hill.

"When we first started, we thought we were entering a depressed area. There weren't any houses out here at all," said Sharon Mason, the Workhouse Arts Center's executive arts director. "Now new homes nearby are selling from $1 to $2 million. We're taking a look at our programming with the mindset of . . . what does this community want?"

Responding to what they hear, they are planning more dance performances and children's classes to attract some of the neighborhood's newer families, Mason said.

The arts center will likely be one of the most high-profile amenities in Laurel Hill, where organizers envision not just studio spaces for artists but also two restaurants, a theater, an event center, music programming in a nearby barn, a museum and lofts where artists can live and work.

Many of those features are in the distant future, organizers say. For now, the Lorton Arts Foundation is finishing construction of the 10 brick buildings that will be artists' studios, office space and the exhibit gallery.

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