Cell blocks and dormitories lined the small green yard near the Workhouse portion of the Lorton prison, the older part of the institution built as a Reform-era prison nearly a century ago.
Soon, those cells and now vacant buildings will have layers of new paint, their exposed beams and rafters will be restored and artists, dancers and other performers will call the former prison home.
"We’re letting our imaginations go here," said Tina Leone, executive director of the Lorton Arts Foundation, which has taken ownership of the Workhouse site on Ox Road with the intent of turning the site into a cultural arts center within the next few years.
By the end of the year, Leone said 10 buildings, including a gallery and studio space, will be open and ready for the public.
"The visual arts studio, the performing arts studio and the two-story gallery building, which used to be a dormitory, are still on track to open this year," she said.
In addition, funds are being raised for the restoration of a gymnasium located just across the courtyard from what will be the gallery space. The gym features a stage, the only internal structure on the prison campus to be included in historic district created around the prison and listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
"The focus of this area is as a cultural center," Leone said. "It's about art, first and foremost."
WORKING WITH a small staff of dedicated and visionary people has led to a creative list of ideas for reusing some of the space, including possibly turning an old power plant into a brewery.
"Some people might say that's an art form," Leone laughed. "But there's some other amenities that are necessary to have a viable arts center. You need a place for people to eat," she said.
To meet that need, there is talk of turning the former prison mess hall into a culinary school which would provide meals or could be used as a banquet or events hall.
Even before any of the buildings are fully remodeled, a groundswell in interest has grown from outside vendors who want to establish a presence at the Workhouse when the space is available.
"Even though the Workhouse has been in the minds of local people, the outside community still needs to be educated," said Steve Mutty, director of commercial leasing for the Workhouse with the Lorton Arts Foundation.
"Obviously, we have plans for this complex to be in many respects a world class place, an there are some in the community and business world that would like to be involved right away," he said.
Now that the remodeling is underway, Mutty said the place is waking up.
"These buildings have been dormant for so long, but the more people come by to see the site and how much it's been transformed, it's turning into a great thing."
Some smaller business spaces may be leased by this summer, he said, and he is optimistic that some larger restaurants will agree to contracts by the end of the year.
THE WORKHOUSE area is a 288,000 square-foot campus, consisting of 30 historic buildings, all of which must be adaptively reused according to the regulations of the National Registry of Historic Places. Mutty said those regulations pose some challenges, but nothing that has been insurmountable to this point.
"Little Lorton is about to get a lot of amenities," he said. "It's really exciting to see all these forms of adaptive reuse here. There's nothing like this anywhere else in the region."
Other plans include turning the main two-story dormitory into a gallery space downstairs, a reception area for gala events upstairs and possibly a wine tasting room in the basement, said Sherran Denkler, director of development and marketing for the Lorton Arts Foundation.
"There are tunnels all over the place, and we were thinking we could make one area into a wine cellar and use this space for tastings," she said.
The gallery and reception space may use portable, temporary walls to organize exhibits, Denkler said, depending on the size of the event.
In another building, there will be room for a darkroom for photographers who want to make prints in the traditional way, she said.
All these changes or planned renovations are signs of "tremendous progress" toward remaking Lorton into a place people want to visit, said Tim Sargeant, a member of the committees that set out to redesign Lorton when the prison first closed. As a new member of the county's Planning Commission, Sargeant will be able to make sure those ideas become reality.
"Everything seems to be on schedule, thanks to the professional staff at the Lorton Arts Foundation and their tremendous partnership with the county," he said.
A very vocal supporter of the Lorton Arts Foundation's dream for renovating the Workhouse, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said he's thrilled to see things taking shape.
"We have the opportunity to put on the ground a place that embodies the thoughts and dreams of folks who wanted to do this years ago," Hyland said. "The commitment of the Lorton Arts folks has been unflagging. They're visionaries."