kidding! The Torpedo Factory Art Center was an actual
torpedo factory. It's not just a catchy name for
a building bursting with art studios.
It all began the day after
Armistice Day, November 12, 1918, which was the
anniversary of the official end of World War I.
Ironically, on that day the U.S. Navy began construction
on the original building, which became the U.S.
Naval Torpedo Station. When fully operational,
it was responsible for the manufacture and maintenance
of torpedoes for the next five years. Work stopped
and the facility served as a munitions storage
area until World War II. Production on the Mark
XIV, a submarine borne torpedo, and the Mark III
aircraft torpedo then resumed at an intense rate;
in fact, men and women worked around the clock
and were given only two days off a year. Gradually
as space was needed, ten additional buildings
were added to the complex.
The green torpedo currently
displayed in the main hall was actually made here
in 1945. This Mark XIV torpedo is painted bright
green so that the Navy could find it in the water
when it was tested. Its log book, in the exhibit
case, tells its history, and lists the submarines
on which it traveled. The silver colored torpedo
displayed in the back hall is a type which was
dropped from airplanes and was not made here at
the Torpedo Factory.
When peace was declared in
June of 1945, the furious activity at the torpedo
factory came to a grinding halt. Eventually, the
U.S. government decided to use the buildings for
storage space: the Smithsonian stored art objects
and valuable dinosaur bones; Congress stored documents;
the military kept German war films and records
in sealed vaults.
In 1969, the City of Alexandria
bought the complex of buildings from the Federal
Government. However, it was several years before
an acceptable plan for their use was adopted.
Marian Van Landingham proposed a project that
would renovate the building into working studio
spaces for artists. Van Landingham was President
of the Art League at the time, as well as Projects
and Programs Director of the Alexandria Bicentennial
Commission. Her proposal was endorsed by the Commission.
With Van Landingham's experience in the arts,
public relations, and politics, she was the perfect
choice to become the first city-employed Director
of the Art Center and the Torpedo Factory Artists'
Association was born.
Work began on the building
in May of 1974, with artist volunteers and City
personnel working together to remove the debris
of 55 years. Bulldozers and firehoses were initially
needed and 40 truckloads of debris were eventually
removed. Studio walls were built, electricity
and plumbing expanded. The entire exterior was
repainted. By July, artists had converted the
huge space into a complex of bright and clean
studios. Most of the studio spaces had been reserved
by that time from a list of juried artists. On
September 15, 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center
opened to the public.
In the 1970s, the artists
were so passionate about their studio time they
were willing to work in very uncomfortable conditions.
Freezing winter temperatures were barely addressed
by an ancient boiler which blew a little heat
to the first floor and attempted to power furnaces
on the upper floor. Shivering artists could only
detect heat from those furnaces by leaning on
them or touching them directly. They would bundle
up in coats, wear gloves with the fingertips cut
off, and run coffee pots of boiling water in an
attempt to hold off the chill.
With no air conditioning in
the summer, the artists would battle the Alexandria
heat by working in the constant breeze of a fan.
Many would bring frozen bottles of water from
home which they would sip as they melted through
From 1982 to 1983, the building
underwent a major renovation as part of the City's
waterfront development plan. During that year,
all of the artists packed into a much smaller
building next door and continued to work. Many
artists worked literally elbow to elbow in unimaginably
tight quarters. That building still exists as
non-affiliated retail and office space.
The Torpedo Factory building
was gutted entirely, including all pipes, electrical
units, windows, and flooring. A second floor was
constructed. A ventilation system and central
air and heating were added as well. The artful
spiral staircase and main staircase were both
added at this time. The artist studios were built
to address the specific water, lighting, and electrical
needs of each resident artist. A grand reopening
celebration was held on May 20, 1983.
Today, the Torpedo Factory
Art Center is home to over 160 professional artists
who work, exhibit, and sell their art. Along with
over 1,000 cooperative gallery members and some
2,000 art students, the Torpedo Factory Art Center
draws artists from across the region and attracts
visitors from around the world.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center
is a working example of how the arts can revitalize
a community and serves as a prototype for visual
arts facilities throughout the world. To learn
more about the development and management of the
Torpedo Factory Artists' Association, you may
purchase our TFAA Packet. Click
here for more information and an order form.