YES, the Torpedo Factory Art Center once was an actual torpedo factory!
It all began the day after Armistice Day, November 12, 1918, marking the official end of World War I. Ironically, on that day, the U.S. Navy began construction on the original building, the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station. Once 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 when production on the Mark XIV (a submarine borne torpedo) and the Mark III aircraft torpedo resumed at an intense rate. Over time, ten additional buildings were added to the complex.
The Mark XIV green torpedo, currently displayed in the main hall, was produced here in 1945. It was painted bright green so that the Navy could find it in the water when it was tested. The 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 used the buildings for storage. Congressional documents, valuable dinosaur bones, art objects from the Smithsonian and German war films and records were stored in sealed vaults.
In 1969, the City of Alexandria bought the buildings from the Federal Government. However, it was several years before an acceptable plan for their use was adopted. Art League President Marian Van Landingham proposed a project that would renovate the building into working studio spaces for artists. Her proposal was endorsed by the Alexandria Bicentennial Commission and she became the first Director of the Art Center. It also led to the creation of the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association.
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. 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 no match for an ancient boiler which blew little heat to the first floor and attempted to power furnaces on the upper floor. With no air conditioning in the summer, the artists would battle the 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 smaller building next door and continued to work. The factory 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. A grand reopening celebration was held on May 20, 1983.
The Friends of the Torpedo Factory Art Center was established in1982 as a community outreach arm of the Torpedo Factory and its resident artists. The Friends’ programs promoted public awareness of the value of the arts in daily life by taking artists into the community as well as bringing the community into the Art Center. Programs such as the Artist of the Year Award and the Performance Art and Lecture Series provided opportunities for patrons and professionals to enjoy artistic programs of the highest quality. Other Friends programs such as the Mentorship and Young at Art Programs provided opportunities to a variety of local communities to enjoy the experience of art.
Today, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is home to over 165 professional artists who work, exhibit, and sell their art. Drawing over half a million visitors a year, the Torpedo Factory Art Center attracts artists from across the region and around the world. It stands as a stellar example of how the arts can revitalize a community and serves as a prototype for visual arts facilities throughout the world.