Workhouse Arts Center
The Workhouse Arts Center is set on 55 acres of land on the campus of what used to be the historic D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory. Today, the Workhouse provides a home to 65 of the region's finest professional and emerging artists and is fast becoming a regionally and nationally recognized visual and performing arts mecca for all of those interested in the arts. Artist studios and gallery buildings are open Wednesday through Saturday 11am - 6pm, Sunday 12 - 5pm. The Workhouse Prison Museum is open Wednesday through Friday 12 - 4pm, Saturday and Sunday 12 - 5pm.
Scenes From the Workhouse Arts Center
5 Things to Do at the Workhouse Arts Center
1. Attend an Event
Throughout the year there are over 300 concerts, theatrical performances, and various other events to enjoy. In the intimate classrooms and theaters found across campus you'll be able to enjoy everything from comedy shows to jazz recitals and everything in between. There are also seasonal performances on the campus quad for you to enjoy during the warmer months of the year. Annual Independence Day and Spring Festivals are two of the larger special events that bring out the crowds, and you can see what's going on when you're in town by visiting their event calendar here.
2. Visit With Artists in Their Studio
The Workhouse is home to over 60 studio artists working on site throughout the campus. Visitors to art galleries usually find themselves in a very passive experience (simply viewing the art on display), but at the Workhouse you're encouraged to interact with the artists in their studios and see what their passions and inspirations are. These welcoming artists put on over 150 independent exhibitions per year in the various buildings throughout campus, which gives you plenty of opportunities to view their works - and buy your own unique piece to take home with you!
3. Visit the Prison Museum
The Workhouse has one of the most fascinating back-stories out of all the attractions you'll find in Northern Virginia. The Workhouse Prison Museum presents an overview of the history of the facility, including the suffragists who had been arrested for picketing for Women's Rights at the White House. With knowledgeable docents, historic objects, stories and photographs, the Workhouse Prison Museum offers visitors insight into the lives of the prisoners and prison staff that worked and lived here. You can hear that story first hand at the on-site museum located in Building W-9 and open to the public Wednesday through Friday 12 - 4pm; Saturday and Sunday 12 - 5pm.
4. Take a Class
If you want to expand your creativity, get in shape, learn to cook, or even take a stab at glass-blowing, then the Workhouse is the place for you. Multiple classes throughout the year give you an opportunity to nurture your inner artist, and puts you in position to learn how to hand-craft the best birthday gift EVER for your significant other. To find the most up-to-date information on classes and workshops including classroom changes, time changes or date changes please check their site often.
5. Take a Guided Tour
If you are in a visiting group, and want the opportunity to get an in-depth guided tour of the campus, you might want to schedule a guided tour (for groups of 10 or more only) which last appoxomately 45-60 minutes, and give an excellent perspective of the history behind the facility. You'll also get a behind-the-scenes look at the different studios located throughout the buildings on campus. These tours and dates are available during open hours only and depend on tour guide availability. Request a tour for your group by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 703-584-2900
History of the Workhouse
The District of Columbia's Workhouse opened in Lorton, Virginia in the summer of 1910. It was an experiment to see if hard work in an open air environment would be an effective deterrent for short term prisoners who were habitual drunkards, vagrants and family abusers. A 3,200 acre tract of undeveloped land on the Occoquan River near Lorton, Virginia was purchased by the U.S. Government for the establishment of an "industrial farm".
A Women's Workhouse was opened in 1912 on a nearby site. Sentences were of short duration and were for soliciting, prostitution, disorderly conduct and drunkenness. Women did laundry and made clothes for the prisoners of the two institutions. There prisoners built the stockade and tents in which they were housed using lumber obtained from the site. There were no cells, locks or bars. A brickyard was established, fields were prepared for cultivation, orchards created, a wharf built on the river and a road cut through to a nearby railroad. Eventually the prisoners built the brick dormitory buildings still seen today of bricks they, themselves, had made.
In 1917, women began demonstrating in front of the White House for the right to vote. They decided they would rather be imprisoned than be quiet. In response to their outspoken protests during World War I, they were sentenced to fines or imprisonment. They chose imprisonment. Some of those arrested were sentenced to the Women's Workhouse at Lorton. The protestors were held under deplorable conditions. As news of the sentences spread, sympathy for the suffragists wasaroused. Even the most hard hearted did not believe that pickets deserved such drastic sentence. After the pickets were released a number of women who had been arrested and served sentences toured the country on the "Prison Special" railroad car to keep public attention focused on the suffrage issue in the Senate. Finally the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 and for the first time women were allowed to vote in the November 1920 national election.
By the late 1980s, the prison was known more for over-crowding and disorganization than the rehabilitation program for which Roosevelt had promoted. In fact, the prison was in such a state of disrepair that it became representative of the nation's difficulties with correctional facilities. In 1997, Federal legislation required the Lorton Correctional Facility to be closed by December 31, 2001. The last prisoner left the complex in November of 2001.
In 2002, the then Lorton Arts Foundation, Inc. proposed a plan to transform the former prison facility into a cultural arts center. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning of a 55-acre portion of the former correctional facility to become the Workhouse Arts Center in July of 2004. A year later, the site was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. After several years of planning, adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of the historic buildings, the Workhouse Arts Center opened to the public in September 2008.
The Workhouse currently consists of six (6) artist studio buildings, the main galleries, the W-3 Theatre, the Art of Movement building and the Metropolitan School of the Arts. We support more than 100 professional and emerging artists by providing them affordable studios and galleries to exhibit their work. Instead of only viewing the art, visitors are encouraged to interact with the artists when they visit. In addition to visual arts, the Workhouse Arts Center is home to performing arts, including: theater; musical theater; film; music; and dance performances. The Workhouse also offers over 800 arts education classes and workshops in a broad spectrum of art disciplines.