Alexandria's waterfront was a picture of urban decay in May of 1974. A chain-link fence blocked access to the Potomac River, keeping the public from the rotting docks and the ungainly, battleship-gray buildings in which the U.S. Navy once manufactured torpedoes. Only a handful of businesses remained in the area. Economic renewal seemed dubious. Some Old Town residents were pushing for demolition of the former factory, which clashed with the neighborhood's colonial grace, blocked views of the water and had become a haven for rats and pigeons.

Marian Van Landingham, a local artist and community activist, saw something else in the grimy complex, which the city had purchased from the federal government in 1969. As president of Alexandria's Art League, she had been searching unsuccessfully for new, larger quarters for the organization's gallery and school. When a friend suggested the torpedo plant as a site, Van Landingham had a brainstorm: turn the buildings into a working art center, housing the Art League as well as scores of artists' studios that would be open to the public.

"It was an experiment, and as far as I know we were the first to attempt it, at least on such a large scale," says Van Landingham, now the Alexandria-Mount Vernon delegate to Virginia's General Assembly and author of a new book commemorating the Torpedo Factory Art Center's 25th anniversary. "I felt certain people would enjoy coming in contact with artists at work because I'd seen how the public liked to watch the craftsmen in Colonial Williamsburg and Chelsea Court in Georgetown. But there was considerable opposition. The merchants and some residents didn't understand what we were about. To them, we were a bunch of hippies undermining business and denying people the waterfront."

But Van Landingham and a band of artists persuaded city officials to give the idea a shot, and the Torpedo Factory Art Center was launched in May 1974, with a three-year lease and $140,000 in funds from the City Council for minimal renovations. Dozens of Washington area artists pitched in by renting studios for $3 a square foot and investing countless hours of sweat equity in cleaning, repairing and painting the building.

Twenty-five years later, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is widely known as Alexandria's main tourist attraction, drawing 800,000 visitors and generating about $1.8 million in sales tax revenue annually. Remodeled in 1983, the three-story, cast concrete structure with the large windows at 105 N. Union St. covers one city block. It anchors a thriving business district on a revived waterfront that includes parks, restaurants, residences, shops and the city marina.

The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station on the Alexandria waterfront, built in 1919, was originally used to manufacture and maintain torpedoes until 1923. The station was then used for munitions storage until the outbreak of World War II. During that conflict, thousands of submarine and aircraft torpedoes were produced. In the postwar years, the factory was used by the federal government to store captured German and Italian war records and films, as well as dinosaur bones from the Smithsonian Institution, congressional archives, surplus office furniture and civil defense provisions.

Where ranks of dusty filing cabinets once stood, there are currently 160 artists and artisans, including painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, potters, jewelers, stained-glass makers and instrument makers, working in 83 individual and shared studios. All the artwork must be done in public view, and the artists, who now pay $8.36 per square foot for studio space, are required to answer questions about their creative processes. The building also houses an archaeological organization and the Art League's gallery and fine arts school. The complex has served as a model for successful working art centers created from abandoned industrial space in Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Virginia.

"The Torpedo Factory is an ongoing opportunity for us to celebrate the arts in Alexandria by having a preeminent, destination art center here," says Kerry J. Donley, Alexandria's current mayor. "There is also a tremendous economic benefit. It attracts visitors from all over the world. They visit the Torpedo Factory and buy art, and they also shop in our shops and eat in our restaurants."

In Washington's art scene, however, the Torpedo Factory's success is not universally admired. Detractors dismiss it as a climate-controlled cavern filled with artsy-crafty kitsch and safe, predictable art made by conservative, mostly middle-aged artists.

The Torpedo Factory is indeed more "Our Town" than downtown. It isn't the place to go looking for the next Robert Mapplethorpe or Jackson Pollock. Much of the work is representational. Warm, bright colors abound. But the skill level of the center's artists is undeniably high.

"When I hear people say this is a crafts place, I tell them to come in and look at the quality of the art being made here," says Taylor C. Wells, the director of the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association. "We have outstanding artists producing a fantastic diversity of top-quality work. Our artists show and sell art all over the world."

Van Landingham says the carping about the art began soon after it opened. The center, she says, "brings people to this side of the river. It's competition for Washington's galleries. I always felt that the put-downs are a response to the competition. There's not one overriding aesthetic at the Torpedo Factory. There's probably something in there that anyone may like and something anyone may hate. That's the way it should be."

Wells, formerly the director of the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Va., arrived in 1998, when the artists' association took over management of the building. It had been sold by the city to a private developer in 1983 under a Reagan-era sale-leaseback agreement and operated jointly by the artists and the municipal government. Alexandria retained a repurchase option that it exercised in September 1998, paying $5.4 million for the property. A balloon payment of $3.5 million from the original loan to the developer covered most of the purchase cost. In effect, the artists now rent the space directly from the city and assume responsibility for the bulk of utility costs and all other operating expenses.

The artists' association has an annual budget of $600,000, and Penny Berringer says the members welcome the responsibility of operating the center. "Before we didn't even know what the costs were. The developer never told us," she says. "It's kind of scary knowing we have to come up with the money. But it's also exciting to have control in our hands. We can be a lot more creative with the space now."

An example of the artists' creativity can currently be seen in the Target Gallery, which is hosting a members' exhibition titled "25{+3}." For the show, the artists were required to make a work that would fit in a three-inch Plexiglas cube. Some had fun with the idea, producing whimsical works such as Rosemary Feit Covey's curled scrap of paper titled, "I don't want." The paper bears a brief text explaining that she really didn't want to participate, but had to and that maybe someone will think her piece is conceptual art and pay her a lot of money. Her asking price: $2,000.

Most of the artists working in the Torpedo Factory today weren't original members. Studio space opens up for a variety of reasons. Artists move away, die or decide they'd like to work more privately. New applicants for studios are selected by a jury and given space according to their need for light, security and space. But all are required to open their studios to the public at least 24 hours per week.

"Working here takes some getting used to," says Berringer. "Not everybody likes working with the public access and the noise and the crowds. You have to make some adjustments. On weekends, most artists choose to do work that's interruptible, because people inevitably come in and start talking to you."

The majority of visitors are curious and polite, artists say. Some aren't. In Van Landingham's book, she describes an incident in which a visitor stood in a sculptor's studio doorway and said loudly, "Garbage, garbage, all garbage." In the center's early years, Susan Sanders, a jewelry designer, usually responded to visitors' questions about whether the Potomac was the Atlantic Ocean by saying, "Yes, and that's Portugal over there."

But most of the artists enjoy working in the public eye. A middle-aged couple came in once while Berringer was working on a lithograph, drawing the design on a stone with a greasy crayon. "They were so happy because they had never actually seen a print being made," she says. "Now they understand how the process worked."