The Story of W-12

Written August 2013

Inmates have played basketball there. Baryshnikov has danced there. And now a new performing arts school hopes to build a 450-seat theatre there.

“There” is building W-12 at the Lorton Workhouse complex, a former 100-year-old reformatory that has been turned into an arts center 15 miles outside Washington, D.C. After a series of financial and managerial hiccups that left the arts center with millions in debt, the Metropolitan School of the Arts is working to resurrect plans for the theatre and provide a boost to the center at the same time.

The private performing arts school, which opens in September, is subleasing space at the Workhouse Arts Center from the Lorton Arts Foundation. The school evolved from the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center, a Northern Virginia dance studio with more than 1,000 students.

Metropolitan, which has been in business for 14 years, renovated one of the workhouse buildings and opened its southern Fairfax County location there in mid July. Meanwhile, the studio was structured as a nonprofit in preparation for opening the school, which will hold classes in an adjoining building.

The dance classes will bring more traffic to the Workhouse Arts Center, which has been drowning in debt since it opened in 2008. But the addition of a large size performance complex capable of hosting shows and concerts has the potential to turn the tide for everyone involved.

But there’s a long way to go and a long, winding history to overcome.

In the fall of 2007, ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov performed a 15-minute retrospective in W-12 as part of a kickoff gala for the Workhouse, which opened the following spring. At the time, it was thought to be the start of great things to come, but it wasn't — at least not yet.

One problem — or saving grace, depending on your view — is that the Workhouse buildings have been designated as “historically eligible.” To get approval for renovations, you must provide consideration for “adaptive reuse”; or, in simple terms, you must preserve elements of the building that are considered historic in nature.

In excavating the former gym, workers bumped up against a stone structure near the proscenium. Two feet down, on the north side of the building, they found a bricked stage that was part of the original construction almost a century before.

The adaptive reuse provision kicked in and the cost, according to estimates, increased $500,000 to $2 million. By this time, the arts foundation’s economic model was bleeding red ink, and construction was halted. Building W-12 was closed off to public view.

In June 2012, foundation President and CEO John Mason invited businesses interested in moving into the Workhouse complex to take a look. That’s where Metropolitan came into the picture.

Melissa Dobbs, Metropolitan’s founder, has dreamed of opening a private performing arts high school in Fairfax County for years. The goal is to have a place that “offers boarding for pre-professional artists who want to pursue arts as their career, or really just want to focus on arts seriously.”

Metropolitan and the arts foundation worked out a deal: The studio/school would sign seven-year leases over a 35-year period and renovate Building W-4 to use as a studio. At the same time, Metropolitan would put its resources behind fundraising for the Building W-12 overhaul, with first dibs on its use for its students.

In less than seven weeks, the renovations on W-4 were completed, and it opened for students in time for summer camps that will end just before the school year starts in September. Metropolitan’s theatre company will present its first Workhouse musical, “Fame,” in Building W-3 in mid-August.

It’s an ambitious project, one that few people would be brave enough to undertake in a difficult economy. But Dobbs, who started her studio 14 years ago and now has 90 teachers and more than 1,000 students, is not afraid to dream big.

“We know this is going to work,” she has said over and over.

Over the next 12 months, as the school opens and the program is expanded, fundraising and grant writing will begin to pay for the renovations of W-12. Then, at some point — hopefully sooner rather than later — the stripped down building will be the theatre that southern Fairfax County deserves.