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From Cell Blocks to Stage Lights

Plans for former prison site include galleries, studios, performance groups.

After four long years, only the flick of a pen stands between the Lorton Arts Foundation and the beginning of its transformation of the workhouse on the former Lorton prison site into an arts complex.

More than a dozen buildings will be adaptively reused and renovated to create a campus of galleries, studios, performance space and museums, said Sharon Mason, a staff member with the Lorton Arts Foundation.

Standing close to Route 123 are two nearly identical buildings, one of which will become a gallery and the other will eventually be a performing arts center, said Mason.

"The first floor of the gallery will be our main exhibit area, which will be open to groups all across Fairfax County," she said. "We'd like to have gallery space on the second floor but that may be used for classroom space."

The green expanse between the future gallery and theater building will someday look like the lawn of the University of Virginia, after which it was originally designed, she said.

Crossing the lawn to the theater building, Mason and Bill Cunningham, a member of the Performing Arts Advisory Committee with the Foundation, point out bricks, made at the prison, that have become hidden by grass.

"Thousands and thousands of bricks were made here by prisoners when this was a workhouse," said Mason.

The building that will house the theater was originally a gymnasium, she said, walking into the cold, expansive building.

Broken windows will be replaced with glass similar to what was first installed, Mason said, as dictated by the Memorandum of Agreement and other documents that protect and outline the reuse policies for the prison complex.

The stage located along the northern-most wall of the building is the only historically-protected structure to be found inside a building, she said. "We're not quite sure why, but that means the stage has to stay where it is. We can build around it and up to it, but the stage has to stay intact."

PLANS FOR the theater include almost 200 seats in a format similar to a black box theater but not identical, Mason said. "We hope to have a few seats arranged in a semi-circle near the edge of the stage and then regular theater seating behind them and we're thinking of putting a lobby area with concession stands in the rear of the building," she said.

Seven buildings which were formerly dormitories will be converted into studios, allowing as many as 60 artists to have private work space, Mason said.

"The studios are in the first phase of our plans for the workhouse," she said, along with the theater and the gallery buildings. "There will be some room for commercial space, but it will all be art-related. We want this to be an artist-friendly place," she said, open to the possibility of framing stores or facilities for mailing artwork to be included as well.

Inside the future studio buildings, faded orange paint outlines where beds used to be lined up, housing up to 60 prisoners at a time when the prison had its greatest number of residents.

The preservation requirements of the buildings do not inhibit the installation of air conditioning and heating units, the replacement of ceiling tiles or the removal of sinks or toilets that no longer have a use, said Neal McBride, a member of several task forces that helped develop the vision for the new Laurel Hill area.

"You can do almost anything you want inside the buildings to make them livable," he said.

The Lorton Arts Foundation may look into using a radiant heat system to regulate temperature in the buildings. "We want to make the buildings as interesting as possible so people will really enjoy coming here," Mason added.

The seven studio buildings will not be identical on the inside, she said, nor will the works produced by the artists who work there.

"We want to have all kinds of artists along with an educational ingredient in each studio and we're programming for that to happen in our early phases," Mason said, noting the recently signed partnership between the Lorton Arts Foundation and the South County Secondary School.

Among the first art forms to be included at the workhouse center will be a dance and performing arts studio, along with glassblowers and some more traditional mediums, she said.

Only one building will retain prison cells, McBride said, as part of a museum documenting prison life in America.

"You can find every modern criminal movement in American history here," he said, from the suffragists to violent inmates strung out on drugs.

The handful of cells that will remain will be cleaned up to remove some graffiti, chipped paint and other signs of wear in the cell-block, McBride said, but some graffiti will remain in order to portray what life was like for prisoners there in a more truthful way.

"The rest will be taken out for the history museum," he said, which will include kiosks and displays depicting prison life.

A separate museum will be built dedicated to the women's suffrage movement because many of the movement's most significant proponents, like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, were imprisoned at Lorton for their civil disobedience, McBride said.

The low, one-story building that used to be a commissary will one day become an event center, he said, which can be used by corporations or families to house banquets, conferences or celebrations like weddings or mitzvahs.

"You could even have theater-in-the-round performances here, there's a lot of possibilities," he said, adding that the commercial-sized kitchen in the back will be replaced with a smaller one but that the equipment to cook for large-scale events will be available.

THE LORTON Arts Foundation only has to finalize its lease with Fairfax County for the work to begin that will change the prison site and the buildings, which have fallen into a state of disrepair since the prison closed in 1998, into an arts complex, Mason said.

But steps are being taken to ensure the Lorton Arts Foundation is ready to make those repairs and renovations once the lease is finalized.

On Thursday, Dec. 8, Mason and Bill Cunningham met with an architectural firm to go over ideas for the theater building, Cunningham said.

"Hopefully, we'll get a start on the designs for the theater after the Christmas holiday, which means we should have the preliminary designs early in 2006," he said.

The Arts Foundation is also hoping to finalize an agreement that would bring about a youth theater program for next summer, Cunningham said, which is one of six main focuses the foundation hopes to incorporate in the community.

Eventually, the workhouse complex will be home to both an adult and youth theater ensemble that would produce up to five plays or musicals each year, along with a performing arts center that could be utilized by groups from around the area, he said.

"From what I understand, once the lease is signed, construction will begin one or two months later," he said. Early estimates for construction would have the theater opening up 18 months later which, ideally, would mean June 2007.