Virginia Turns Penal Colony into Art Colony

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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.

9 thoughts on “Virginia Turns Penal Colony into Art Colony

  1. Monta Lee Dakin

    As always, you have pulled back the curtain on an interesting topic. Having grown up near there, I, too, heard the stories but never visited the place. When I am in town for Museum Advocacy Days this coming February, maybe I can slip on down and check it out.

    BTW, Occoquan not Occoquam.


  2. FrannMarie Jacinto

    An interesting point regarding the responsibility to address the broader aspects of the prison’s history, Max, Too, regarding the inability to take photographs. And, sadly true regarding the massive debt. The facility has already cut a youth theatre troupe.

    However, both the name and location are amiss. The Workhouse is located in Lorton, within Fairfax County, northward across the Occoquan River and 13 miles from the town of Occoquan (

    Occoquan is a quaint historic seaport town in Prince William County (Virginia): www. and,_Virginia. It was settled by the British in 1765, with a deeper indigenous history rooted in the Algonquin Doeg (Taux) tribe. We’re quite proud of our preservation efforts and extend a standing invitation to visit all the historic sites we, too, have to offer in Prince William County.

    FrannMarie Jacinto
    Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation Board


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for the additional information–and Lorton is much easier to spell. 🙂

      We’ll keeping watching how things progress. I was really impressed by the restored historic buildings and the new uses, so I really want to see it succeed.


      1. FrannMarie Jacinto

        As do we! Their history is of broad significance — to the National Capital region and the Nation as a whole. Thank you for giving it the spotlight, Max.


      2. Rob

        @FranMarie – Occoquan is in PWC, not 13 miles from Lorton or the Workhouse, it is just across the Occoquan River. One mile tops, Mayor Porta of Occoquan is very much involved in this project


      3. FrannMarie Jacinto

        @Rob. Indeed, the town of Occoquan is in Prince William County (as I’d noted). Though not sure why the first map sent me so far up the road. Kudos on the correction!
        You’re spot on about Mayor Porta’s active involvement in regional history and preservation. I passed this on to Earnie yesterday.
        Thanks, Rob. Thank you again, Max.


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