Last week, Navy Seabees arrived with an unusual housewarming present for Alexandria's newly renovated Torpedo Factory Art Center: a 3,000-pound Mark 14 torpedo case, 21 feet long and painted a vicious green. It was built in 1944, on that very spot, and will remain on display inside the center as a memento of the building's past.
Now they make art in the Torpedo Factory.
And today, with attendant bands, jugglers and political ribbon-cutters, 225 artists including painters, sculptors, printmakers, potters, fiber artists, enamelists, jewelers and even a harpsichord maker will go back to work in what Alexandria officials are calling "the largest community art center in the country."
Built in 1918, the factory survived demolition plans, and part of it became an art center in 1974. The center closed last August for a $3.3 million renovation. Now it's open again, in the central part of the factory complex at 105 N. Union St. It looks better than ever.
"I love it. I wish I could sleep here!" said Gerda Nugent, an Austrian-born artist who engraves crystal goblets and bowls and helps support her medical-student husband with sales. "Come see my view!"
From the back of her handsomely appointed space she can indeed see the Potomac. So can nearly every other artist who isn't facing the Old Town skyline. Painter Mire Mase's light-filled, 18-foot-high studio has both views, and could be the envy of any artist or writer in the world. Stained-glass artist Pam Scotton has a cozy corner overlooking anchored yachts. For sheer spectacle, few can match the breathtaking river panorama that serves as a backdrop for Printmakers Inc. on the second floor.
And all for only $4.80 a square foot a year.
Michael Coleman, the center's only art photographer, didn't care about the view as much as he wanted a place to "gain exposure and build confidence. Being around other artists is what this place is all about. I quit my job as an art director to do this."
Donald M. Cohen, who practices the rare craft of bow making for stringed instruments, recently moved from Atlanta at the request of the National Symphony Orchestra, and has set up a studio here. Printmaker Robert Nelson teaches in Pennsylvania, but comes down on weekends to share a studio with his former student, Washington artist Brian McCall.
All artists must be selected by jury, according to the center's director, watercolorist Marge Alderson, who wears a small silver torpedo around her neck. She looked calm despite the pre-opening chaos that swirled around her yesterday. "We've been working hard to increase quality, and though it's been a slow process, it's coming." Originally a makeshift enterprise overloaded with macrame', the Torpedo Factory has come a long way toward artistic maturity.
On the outside, the old Art Deco details have been highlighted and a dramatic entrance installed.
Inside, the building consists of a central atrium surrounded by a mezzanine floor housing classrooms and studios for a school run by the Art League. Over a stairway, the ceiling opens to a skylight. On the second floor are half of the 85 studios, all with 18-foot ceilings for painters and sculptors who need the height.
"The challenge of that particular building--one of four we were dealing with in the Alexandria waterfront renovation--was to cut that old complex down to size: it was a monster," said Arthur Keyes, partner in charge of the $3.3 million joint venture awarded by competition to architects Metcalf & Associates and Keyes Condon Florance.
"We had to completely restore the building, tearing it down to a skeleton, and put in new windows, new floors, new roof, new stairs, electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, sprinklers and smoke detectors. It's the safest building in Alexandria. And because the artists wanted to keep the industrial look, and the work-place atmosphere, we left all these systems exposed," said Keyes.
With walls painted white, color accents turn up in hi-tech fixtures. Bright yellow industrial lights hang from the ceilings. Blue wire-mesh panels guard the railings. The sprinkler system and doorways are painted red. Air ducts are a natural metal color, as are the corrugated metal panels along the corridor walls.
The two-story building is one-third smaller than the one next door, which has been occupied by Torpedo Factory artists since 1974. But nothing has been lost. To recover 25,000 square feet, Keyes inserted the wrap-around mezzanine, offering not only additional classrooms and studio space, but a pervasive sense of openness, communality and intimacy as well.
"Everybody can see out, and all corridors are glazed, so the artists get additional light and the public can watch them work," he said. Letting the public watch as well as buy is something required by the city of all artists who rent space in the Center.
Though there have been some minor complaints--the height of the loading dock, for instance--most artists say they are thrilled with their new space, and now only fear they might lose it. "Artists always worry," says Alderson, "but they needn't. The city has spent a lot of money to make this an art center--with common sinks, heavy duty electrical wiring for kilns and welding torches and printers' hot plates. It's built as an art center, and beautifully so."
Late yesterday, frenzied artists, husbands, wives and friends were still scurrying about, hauling potted plants, painting walls and putting works in place for the grand opening festivities, which began last night and will continue through Sunday.
"Don't worry, we'll be ready by the time those people in black ties arrive," said potter Solveig Cox.
And they were.$130Picture, Printmakers Inc., on the second floor of Alexandria's Torpedo Factory By James A. Parcell--The Washington Post