Former prison now an active arts center
Once a prison, the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, today is a beehive of artists’ studios, galleries, theaters, classes, community events, a museum and more.
Plans are in the works for an outdoor amphitheater, event venue, education center, Fairfax County Museum, more art studios and outdoor arts areas — even a new café and brewery.
Coming soon are two enticing performances. First, “Women Playing Hamlet,” an all-female comedic adaptation of the famous Shakespeare tragedy, by William Missouri Downs, will run from December 3 to February 5, 2023.
Then, the Workhouse theater will feature “Urinetown” from March 18 to June 3, 2023, a musical that satirizes capitalism, bureaucracy, corrupt corporations and even Broadway musicals. The play won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score.
Conceived as a reformatory
The Occoquan Workhouse, later called the Lorton Correctional Complex and the Lorton Reformatory, housed its first prisoners in 1910.
The prison’s architect, Snowden Ashford, seeking to “dispel the notion of a penal institution,” designed Colonial Revival buildings and covered arcades with arched porticos surrounding a central green. The structures were made of bricks that inmates manufactured on site.
Founders wanted prisoners to have an employable trade after their release and to make prisons self-supporting. Thus, the prison had an agricultural work camp, cannery, orchards, poultry farm, dairy, sawmill and blacksmith shop.
Over the decades, though, “the facility evolved from one of Progressive Era reform to an overcrowded prison of guard towers, bars and cellblocks,” the center’s website states. So, in 1997 Congress mandated that the prison be closed and inmates moved to other jails.
The last prisoner left in November 2001, and the federal government sold the 55-acre property to Fairfax County for $4.2 million. In 2008, after a four-year restoration project that retained the main campus and some original guard towers, the arts center opened to the public.
“We embrace the prison history,” said Leon Scioscia, president and chief executive officer of the Workhouse Arts Foundation. Scioscia, who arrived in 2021, is passionate about expanding the facility’s useful spaces and arts programs for its 100,000-plus annual visitors.
“Arts help provide the fabric of life,” Scioscia said. “Everyone cannot become an artist, but the experience can give one an important outlook on life. It makes people think. Art is about thinking.”
Visit active studios
More than 65 professional and emerging artists work and display their paintings, pottery, glassworks, textiles and other creations at the center.
Visitors can amble through their open studios five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday) to chat with the artists about their work. In addition, the center holds art walks with open studios every second Saturday.
The center also has supporting infrastructure for artists, such as kilns, pottery wheels and a flameworking room.
Michele Montalbano, an artist from Burke, Virginia, paints invented landscapes from her on-campus studio.
“We need the arts,” Montalbano said. The Workhouse is “a place where people can use their imagination to create something bigger than themselves and make people see things in a different way.”
In addition to visual arts, the Workhouse is home to the W3 Theatre performing arts program, the Lucy Burns Museum, an art program for veterans, music classes for preschoolers, and the Art of Movement program (yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, belly dancing and other exercise classes). It hosts large-scale community events such as a fireworks celebration every July 4.
The center also offers more than 300 arts education classes and workshops in many art disciplines, including ceramics, photography, open life drawing and glass fusing.
Audition for performances
Director of Performing Arts Joey Wallen has beefed up the center’s performing arts program in recent years, with more than 100 offerings pre-pandemic and almost back up to that number. Performers come from all over the country.
For theater productions, Wallen holds an “open call,” inviting anyone to audition. Most performers are locals who will perform with professional producers and directors.
Broadway and off-Broadway musicals are their most popular shows. The “biggest name” to perform there was ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2007.
“The Workhouse is a magical place to visit any time of year — and [worth visiting] frequently, with continually changing exhibits and performances,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member Dan Storck, who represents the area.
Tours of prison cells
Tucked in a former barracks building in a corner of the campus, the Lucy Burns Museum traces the 91-year history of the former prison. Visitors can enter an actual prison cell and shower stall.
The museum recounts the story of the 72 suffragists imprisoned there in 1917. Dozens of women were treated brutally for peacefully picketing on the White House sidewalk as they tried to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to support a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
When news of the wardens’ harsh treatment of the women —including beatings, solitary confinement and force feeding —leaked out, Wilson eventually relented. Historians consider the women’s ordeal to be the “turning point” in the suffragist movement.
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, which opened nearby in 2021, relates the movement’s history with life-size statues, a rotunda, a garden and a section of the actual White House fence from 1917.
A museum sign describes the progressive thinking behind the former prison’s origins: “Provide a wholesome, uplifting environment,” it reads. The Lorton Workhouse Arts Center uplifts once again today.
The Workhouse Arts Center is located at 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA 22079. Its galleries are open to the public Wednesday through Sunday. The Lucy Burns Museum is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
For a list of all events and classes, visit workhousearts.org or call (703) 584-2900.