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.
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