I recently had an opportunity to visit the Occoquan Workhouse Prison, an early 20th century federal prison in northern Virginia, which was transformed by Fairfax County in 2008 into the Workhouse Arts Center, a collection of 100 artist studios and galleries. Once regarded as a model for reform-minded incarceration with open dormitory-style residences accompanied by honest work on the surrounding country farm, its image was soon tarnished by the imprisonment and force-feeding of the women who were picketing the White House for suffrage–which helped turn public opinion against the Wilson Administration. I had long known about this infamous event and wanted to get a better sense of the conditions. At the small museum on site, I learned much about the prison’s history and the struggle for woman’s suffrage, however, I also learned that the women were held in a separate building which had been demolished long ago (although the steps were saved and brought to the Sewall-Belmont House) and Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, was never incarcerated here (but her 38-year-old co-leader Lucy Burns was). The stories of imprisonment and forcefeeding did occur, and it was refreshing to see that this uncomfortable event was memorialized in outdoor panels and a museum (unfortunately, the museum doesn’t allow photography).
Today, the buildings are beautifully rehabilitated and the artists were busy in their studios, although outside it was very quiet. Although close to Interstate 95, it’s still on the fringes of suburban northern Virginia and isn’t attracting as many visitors–or revenue–as hoped. According to the Washington Post, the Workhouse Arts Center is awash in $53.7 million of county-endorsed debt, and the foundation responsible for renovating the complex and running the arts center is now fighting for survival.
The visit to Occoquan made me wonder if historic sites should be more willing to discuss crime, violence, mental illness, and anti-social behavior in America, rather than just leave it to the historic prisons and jails. I recognize these are sensitive topics and it can undermine the heroic, progressive, and celebratory histories that we often emphasize at historic sites, but perhaps with their inclusion we can get around the mythical notion of the “good old days” and provide a more well-rounded perspective on the past.