From Prison to Performance

Written September 2013

This summer, my teenage twins and their friends spent a number of their summer weekdays in prison. And they enjoyed it.

The prison in question is the former Lorton Workhouse, an early 20th century reformatory that was converted into the Workhouse Arts Center in 2008. The Metropolitan Performing Arts School (formerly Metropolitan Fine Arts Center) has opened a studio in Building W-4 and brings its first students into private performing arts high school there this fall.

In July, just days after the renovated studio opened, Ben and Emma participated in a musical theatre camp in W-4, which was extensively renovated in just seven weeks.  It gave me a chance to walk around, check out the grounds (where I could), take some pictures (as always), and learn about the facility’s history.

Originally, the Workhouse Complex was considered an experiment in Progressive era penal reform. Operated by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, the complex housed suffragettes — women demanding the right to vote using non-violent civil disobedience — who were jailed after picketing the White House in 1917. Virginia continued to punish the women “without legal process” and house them at the complex even after Congress passed the Suffrage Amendment in 1919.

The current buildings, along with similar ones at the Lorton Reformatory, were built in the 1920s as a dormitory-style complex with no cellblocks, walls, or watchtowers. Prisoners constructed the brick buildings themselves to replace the original workhouse facilities, using materials that came from a kiln located nearby on the Occoquan River.

Buildings were added to the two complexes as the prison facility became more and more overcrowded. By 1997, when Virginia Sen. John Warner sought to close the facility, Lorton housed more than 7,300 inmates, operating at almost 50 percent over capacity. Fairfax County purchased the 2,440 acres from the federal government in 2002 and agreed to lease 55 to the Lorton Arts Foundation, with the hope of converting the Workhouse into an arts complex similar to Alexandria’s very successful Torpedo Factory.

Many Workhouse buildings are now occupied by various artists groups, although the arts foundation has not been able to develop a business model that works financially. The hope is that Metropolitan, and the traffic it brings, will reignite commercial interest in the facility.

Today, numerous vestiges of the old prison remain, including the metal guard towers, the warden’s house, and parts of an old ballfield where the inmates played basketball and football. Several untouched buildings, including a maintenance facility where the bricks were brought over by rail, are starting to crumble. Other buildings have broken windows and cracked cement that is becoming overgrown.

In other words, it’s a photographer’s dream.