Workhouse Arts Center

In Lorton, a Prison Success Story

Friday, September 19, 2008

Little remains to hint that the Workhouse Arts Center, which opens to the public today, was once part of the Lorton Correctional Complex. In one corner of the center's 55-acre campus stand three watchtowers, but that is about it for prison reminders. The insides of buildings that until 2001 were used as prisoner dormitories have been given fresh coats of white paint with splashes of bright oranges and blues. Graffiti has been cleaned off the walls and the broken windows have been replaced.

The 30 red-brick buildings of the former D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory, with their graceful arches and high ceilings, could be mistaken for a boarding school. If the style seems familiar, it might be because former District municipal architects Snowden Ashford and Albert Harris designed them. Eight of the 10 buildings opening today house galleries and studios; another is a performing arts building and one holds offices.

The buildings' open floor plan, with galleries and studios on either side of a central walkway, makes it easy to forget the structures' original use. Until, that is, you realize that yellow lines painted on the floors were once used to herd prisoners through the rows of bunk beds.

"We celebrate that, we really do," Tina Leone, chief executive of the Lorton Arts Foundation, says of the buildings' history. "You can't deny your past. . . . We're bringing back the positive."

There is plenty to see and do at the Workhouse to make an afternoon of a visit. Begin at the gallery building and pick up a pamphlet that tells the history of the buildings and what is in each. Much like the Torpedo Factory's in Alexandria, the atmosphere is meant to be inviting and allow the community to talk to local artists and watch them work. The buildings will offer space for every genre of art. Besides the facilities for painters and sculptors, there will be buildings for glass workers, photographers and yoga enthusiasts.

If you love ceramics you could spend half an hour just wandering through a building dedicated to that medium, talk with a potter and walk out with a new vase. In the pastoral surroundings, you can round out an afternoon with a picnic.

You can see and talk to artists in their studios any time the buildings are open, but now is your best bet for visiting the center. The opening celebration, which runs through Sept. 27, will present visitors with a sampling of the center's offerings, including free workshops, live music and children's theater performances of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

Even as the Workhouse celebrates its opening, expansion is in the air. The planned 30 fall classes have grown to more than 130 to meet the interest; the 600-seat prison cafeteria will become an events space; and artist apartments are in the works. But the three watchtowers will stay, a grim contrast to the warm and lively future of the Workhouse.

-- Amy Orndorff

WHERE IS IT?9601 Ox Rd., Lorton. About 30 minutes from Washington and less than two miles off Interstate 95.

WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO KNOW? There will be events throughout the week, but don't miss the free concert Sunday at 7 p.m. by the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, followed by fireworks.

After the grand opening, the studios will be open to the public to visit, browse and buy artwork: Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.; and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Call 703-495-0001 or visit to see a full list of the week's festivities and class offerings.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company