From Dreaded Prison to Creative Paradise: The Remarkable Transformation of Lorton’s Workhouse Arts Center

The Virginia LOVE sign at the Lorton Workhouse Arts Center

The Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, VA is dedicated to arts and arts education. Located in the former Lorton Reformatory, the center has transformed from a prison to a community hub for creativity and learning. It is a non-profit organization that operates through community and partner support.

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC, hearing the evening news almost nightly expound on the horrors of the Lorton Correctional Facility. Correctional officer deaths, inmate escapes — there was NEVER any good news coming out of Lorton. So it was amazing to visit the former prison. Now it’s an artists colony with filled with works of art people want, instead of filled with people society was trying to throw away.

At the Center, artists rent studio space to create their work and display and sell it. Actors and performers use the stage for productions. Visitors can explore the pavilions, now renovated into sunny, open studios, which house more than 80 artists working in various media, including glass, fiber, clay and medal. These studios are open from Wednesday through Sunday. The Center hosts a monthly event called the Second Saturday Art Walk. Other pavilions focus on dance, theater and music.

The campus also offers educational programs, including classes ranging from dance and blacksmithing to visual arts. Classroom spaces facilitate learning in visual arts, dance styles, exercise methods, and music.

The Workhouse Theater stages four productions annually, receiving high praise. They also host regular comedy nights and cabarets, along with musical performances every Saturday evening during the summer. The Workhouse Arts Center serves as a testament to Fairfax County’s dedication to the arts, community engagement and historical preservation.

Lorton’s newest addition, the Lucy Burns Museum honors the suffragists who were imprisoned at the original reformatory.

Lorton History

The Lorton Correctional Facility, also known simply as Lorton Reformatory, was a prison complex located in Lorton, Virginia. Washington DC established Lorton in the early 20th century. Originally, Lorton offered more humane treatment of prisoners, including vocational training, than other prisons. It also housed a wide variety of inmates, including political protesters and suffragists, such as those imprisoned in 1917 during the struggle for women’s voting rights. Lucy Burns, a significant figure in the women’s suffrage movement, was among those incarcerated at Lorton.

Operated by the District of Columbia, it eventually grew into a complex of multiple units including maximum-security, medium-security and minimum-security installations. Over the decades, the facility became notorious for overcrowding, subpar conditions and violence.

Due to mounting concerns about conditions and the cost of operation, Lorton closed in 2001. The county repurposed the land and structures, making part of it the Workhouse Arts Center, a space dedicated to arts and education. In addition to serving as an artists colony, the Workhouse Arts Center also preserves and celebrates the complex history of the facility.

Lorton Correctional Facility serves as a unique case study in the evolution of penology in the United States, illustrating both the ambitions and challenges of prison reform over the course of the 20th century. The Workhouse Arts Center also exemplifies the repurposing of buildings for the good of the community.

Lucy Burns Museum

In 1917, women picketed the White House in Washington, DC to demand the right to vote. The authorities arrested and imprisoned these women in the Women’s Workhouse. The museum honors Lucy Burns, the co-founder of the National Woman’s Party and the most-arrested suffragist in the United States. During the infamous “Night of Terror” in November, Workhouse guards subjected the 32 women to sadistic treatment. Some suffragists, including Lucy Burns, went on a hunger strike to protest their treatment, but their jailers force-fed them.

After their experience, the women told their stories, unleashing a national public outrage that ultimately led to passage of the 19th amendment granting women equal voting rights with men.

The museum also tells the fascinating story of the unique prison and includes some of the prison cells which were added in the 1960s.

Know Before You Go

The Workhouse Arts Center is accessible to all visitors to the Workhouse. Service animals are welcome across the entire campus, in the theater, studios, galleries, and museum. Visitors to the main building, W-16, an elevator is located inside, through the Vulcan Gallery at the rear of the building. All other campus buildings are only one floor.

There is plenty of parking available, with open-air parking lots located at both the north and south ends of campus. Parking is generally free, though for certain events such as Fireworks or other special events, there may be a fee.

Getting there: 9518 Workhouse Wy, Lorton, VA
Hours: Wednesdays – Saturdays, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sundays noon – 5 p.m. Workhouse closes to the general public for New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday and Monday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and Christmas Monday (Dec. 26).
Website: Workhouse Arts Center

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