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 Mark III torpedoes for the next five years. (The silver torpedo by the Riverfront Entrance is a Mark III, but it was not manufactured in Alexandria.)
Work stopped in 1923 and the facility served as a munitions storage area until 1937 when production on the Mark XIV began leading up to WWII. Over time, the complex grew to 16 buildings and 5,000 employees. Workers were not segregated, which was uncoming in Virginia at this time.
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 at Piney Point, MD.
After the War ended in 1945, the complex briefly manufactured parts for rocket engines before shuttering permanently in 1946.
By 1950, it was converted to the Federal Records Center in Alexandria. It stored congressional documents, dinosaur bones, German war films and Nuremberg War Crimes trial records.
In 1969, the City of Alexandria bought the buildings from the Federal Government for $1.6 million. The U.S. General Services Administration agreed to a five-year deadline to empty all of the contents.
In 1973, The Art League had a lease at 315 Cameron Street that was expiring. James W. Coldsmith, editor of the Alexandria Journal and chair of the Alexandria Bicentennial Commission, suggested to The Art League’s President Marian Van Landingham, who was also part of the Commission, that they consider the expansive old torpedo plant for a new location. She pitched the idea as a three-year pilot to Mayor Charles Beatley Jr. and it passed City Council on May 7, 1974.
Work began that spring. City workers used fire hoses to power-wash the building’s interior, which had been neglected since 1969. There were 40 dump trucks of debris. The City of Alexandria hired Van Landingham to be the first director.
The building was renovated in 1982 and 1983. In May 1983, the Navy Seabees delivered the 3,000-pound, 21-foot-long, green MarkXIV torpedo case as a housewarming present. By the re-opening celebrations on May 21, 1983, there were 225 artists at the Art Center, including a harppsichord maker. The following year, for the 10th anniversary, the Spiral Staircase was unveiled. Shortly thereafter, artist Matthew Harwood founded Target Gallery in 1987 as a way to bring artists in from beyond the Art Center’s walls.
Today, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is home to the nation’s largest collection of publicly accessible working-artist studios under one roof. More than 165 artists work, exhibit, and sell their art across three floors. It is the creative engine for the region.