Manassas Journal Messenger | Open house at the big house

Prison art typically consists of tattoo design and shiv carving. In Lorton, however, things are about to change.

Next fall the former D.C. Correctional Complex will reopen as The Workhouse Arts Center at Lorton. The Lorton Arts Foundation will kick off a yearlong construction project with an open house this Saturday, titled “Open House at the Big House.” Visitors will be able to get an idea of the plans for the space – which will include galleries, restaurants, indoor and outdoor stages and a heritage museum.

The prison closed entirely in 2001, the same year the Lorton Arts Foundation came into being. The prison is on 55 acres.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s going to be nice,” said Lorton Arts Foundation executive arts director Sharon Mason, 58, of Springfield. It’s an overcast Monday afternoon and Mason is giving a tour/safety inspection of the dilapidated correctional facilities to program managers from the construction company.

“We’re doing some preliminary planning to make sure the route everyone will walk on Saturday is safe and clear,” said Wayne Bishop, 49, of Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. Bishop is the project executive for BE&K Building Group, the company handling the construction.

Bishop added that in the year to come the construction team would have to completely install new infrastructure, making sure it meets fire, safety and sanitary regulations. Bishop also said they will have to bring power and water to the campus.

Lorton Arts Foundation CEO Tina Leone said the first phase of the project-working on 11 of the campus’ 30 buildings – would cost about $40 million. Leone, 35, of Alexandria said that $26 million came from approval of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority bond financing. The bond financing was underwritten by Wachovia bank.

“This is not a publicly funded project,” said Leone, adding that there is still a ways to go with fundraising.

On Saturday, before the construction begins, visitors will be able to tour parts of the jail and learn about its history. In addition to criminals, thugs and lowlifes, the D.C. Correctional Complex also temporarily housed celebrities such as suffragist Lucy Burns and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Norman Mailer.

Mason said that Burns went to jail several times for picketing for women’s suffrage outside of the White House. Mailer did time in the 1960s for protesting the Vietnam War.

During the open house, Sheri Ratick Stroud will portray Burns, answering questions outside the cellblock. Once through, Mason said visitors would find information about voting.

“We’re hoping they’re going to be able to register to vote,” said Mason, adding that they are still working out the details for Saturday.

When the arts center opens, the cellblock will remain the same and become a prison museum. There will also be a woman’s suffrage museum.

Mason also said that on Saturday visitors would be able to watch artists practice their craft on the prison lawn, outside of the buildings that will eventually become galleries and performance spaces.

“We’ll have something for every age, something for every taste,” said Mason. “If you’re here on Saturday there’ll be a sample of what you’ll see in 2007.”

Marni Maree of Springfield, a member of the Loft Gallery in Occoquan, will be at the future arts center on Saturday. She said she plans on having paintings on display and for sale, and will be working on a painting of a flower, her favorite subject.

“It’s going to be such a wonderful thing to have in Fairfax County,” said Maree, 44. She added that she plans on applying for studio space at the new center, once the application process begins.

Once the insides are gutted and facades cleaned, the jail lends itself well to an arts center-the architecture of the main quad of the prison, under the “MalXcom” graffiti and cobwebbed bars, resembles the quad at the University of Virginia.

Mason said the idea to preserve the space as an arts center came from Irma Clifton, who is the editor of the Chronicle Newspapers and the president of the Lorton Historical Society. Clifton is also the president of the board of directors for the Lorton Arts Foundation. Clifton also worked for the D.C. Department of Corrections for 26 years, in administration property management.

“She deserves all the credit for this project,” said Mason.

“I’m delighted that we’re going to be able to have a suffragist’s museum, eventually,” said Clifton, adding that the idea for the project first came up in 1996 or 1997.

After Saturday the facility gates will lock for one last time, as the construction crew transforms the prison into a functioning arts center.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at (703) 878-8072.


* “Open House at the Big House” at Workhouse Arts Center

* 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

* Parking is off-site at the Vulcan Quarry, 10000 Ox Road, Lorton; shuttle provided

* or

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