TorpedoFactory Arts Center
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105 N. Union St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
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No 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 the afternoon.

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.

photo by Kathryn Brown
Torpedo at the Torpedo Factory
Aerial View
Aerial View of Torpedo Factory in 1920s
Torpedo Factory in 1960s
Torpedo Factory in late 1960s
Torpedo Factory Renovation
Torpedo Factory Renovation in 1983
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