By Hannah Himes | [email protected]
The Torpedo Factory has housed everything from torpedoes and dinosaur bones to World War II files and, now, the works of more than 165 artists.
Located on North Union Street along the waterfront, the building’s 100th anniversary is this November.
Brett Johnson, director of the Torpedo Factory Art Center said the anniversary is a testament to Alexandrians’ interest in history and the city’s commitment to preserving beautiful buildings.
“I think the bigger significance is the art center turning 45,” Johnson said. “That’s a rare feat in general, showing the commitment of the city, showing the commitment of the artists, showing the commitment of the public who are interested in the space.”
Of course, the building wasn’t always a place to view art.
In September of 1918, the United States Navy announced its plan to build a torpedo plant in Alexandria. Ground broke on the then-U.S. Navy Torpedo Station on Nov. 12, 1918 – one day after Armistice Day.
The construction continued through 1919 and in the same year, the building officially opened. While torpedo manufacturing didn’t officially commence until 1920, the city this year is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the facility’s official opening in 1919.
After the first torpedo was completed in 1920, production continued until 1923, when the factory was shut down.
For the next 16 years, the building was used for storage. A small group of staff was kept on to maintain the facility and care for the many torpedoes being stored in the factory. The factory was also open for public tours on special occasions, such as Navy Day.
After WWII began in 1939, the factory reopened and resumed the production of torpedoes. The factory produced Mark XIV submarine torpedoes and Mark III aircraft torpedoes. The first torpedo, a Mark XIV, made for use during the war was finished on April 1, 1941. It was tested in Piney Point, Maryland.
During WWII, the complex expanded to 10 buildings with about 6,000 munitions workers. A 1993 article in The Fireside Sentinel said the workers were an integral part of the community. They purchased homes and participated in blood drives.
The facility also had an employee newsletter called The Torp, which delivered news such as who had been promoted and who the War Bond Queen nominees were.
After the war ended in 1945, the federal government once more used the building for storage. The Smithsonian stored dinosaur bones there. Nuremberg Trial documents were also stored at the Torpedo Factory, as well as other military documents.
In 1969, the city acquired the Torpedo Factory from the U.S. Navy. But through the years, the building had become dilapidated.
In the early 1970s, former state legislator Marian Van Landingham, who was president of The Art League at the time, was the driving force behind the factory becoming an art center.
The Art League was looking for new space due to the rising price of rent in the area near its office at 315 Cameron St.
“One day I went into the bicentennial office, and I was talking about this, and I was afraid the artists were going to be priced out of Old Town. And the chairman of the Commission at that time was Jim Coldsmith, and he said, ‘Why not the Torpedo Factory? The city doesn’t know what to do with it, you know,’” Van Landingham said in a 2007 interview with Alice Reid that was recorded in the Office of Historic Alexandria’s Oral History Program.
Van Landingham said that, at the time, craftsmen working on their crafts in public wasn’t a “unique idea,” citing places like Colonial Williamsburg.
But she said she had never heard of artists, like painters and sculptors, doing the same.
“And so I came back with this plan to the Bicentennial Commission were it would really be a three-year experiment that the city could try and that we would be a very low-cost renovation, and we could see if it could work,” Van Landingham said, according to the oral history interview.
At the time, Van Landingham was on staff at the Bicentennial Commission, and it supported the idea.
“We were trying to do things about history in Alexandria, but we were also looking at what is the future of Alexandria,” Van Landingham said, according to the oral history interview. “So this sort of fit into the future. And having The Art League already having a need with its need for school space, need for gallery space, its large membership and also that I could go to Art League members and say, ‘Would you rent a studio space if it’s available?’ That was my first source of people for the studios.”
At the time, $140,000 in city funding was approved by city council, led by then-Mayor Chuck Beatley, for the experiment.
The initial renovation, completed by the artists themselves, was one coat of harvest gold paint, cold water sinks and studio dividers, according to the oral history interview.
On Sept. 15, 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center opened to the public.
Johnson said the opening was “very much a groundbreaking idea of placemaking.”
“It wasn’t necessarily the first idea of what it is now or what it became,” Johnson said. “But it was still groundbreaking and revolutionary for everywhere in the world really, at that point, where one, you would take an old building, this old derelict building, put artists into it and have it become a creative space but then also having it be a space that the public could come and interact with the artists. And that’s really the magic point of the art center.”
What started out as an experiment became successful.
Artists were even willing to work in harsh conditions, such as freezing cold and extreme heat. The artists used fans and frozen water bottles to stay cool in the scorching heat, according to the Torpedo Factory Art Center website.
In the early 1980s, about nine years after the initial clean-up and renovation, the City of Alexandria spent $3 million on a permanent renovation, according to the oral history interview.
The renovation included new windows, new bathrooms and new heating and air conditioning, which the building did not previously have.
Johnson said the building lends itself to creativity in more ways than one.
“The idea of creativity is very much changing a pattern,” Johnson said. “It’s changing up the status quo … so just the fact that the building is here is one thing. It’s still a space that you come into that you don’t expect it to be this way.”
He added that the Torpedo Factory still has the charm of a 1920s building, but that the reason it’s creative is because of the artists.
“It’s that force and drive of artists who not just have studios here, not just call it a space to sell but are making and having conversations with each other,” Johnson said. “So the act of going next door and talking to your neighbor about the piece you’re working on, and [getting] their feedback or to have a discussion about material, that is something that is very unique to art environments like this, that you don’t get when you’re an artist just having a studio somewhere by yourself or at your home.”
The Torpedo Factory was managed by its members for about 30 years, but in June of 2010, city council resolved to establish a board to supervise the management of the art center.
In September of that year, when the city held a public hearing, Van Landingham said tourism and other commerce-oriented representatives outnumbered the artists on the board two to one, according to the Alexandria Times.
Some, including Councilor Del Pepper, said composition of the board was a commercial takeover, according to the Alexandria Times.
After Torpedo Factory leadership asked the city for a rent rebate of $137,500 in 2014, city officials asked a consulting firm to review the structure of the organization.
In early 2016, the Cultural Planning Group’s report recommended an overhaul that would create an independent board of directors for the art center. The board would be headquartered in a city-owned building.
In October of 2016, the art center fell under temporary city control. In November of 2018, city council voted unanimously at a public hearing to give the city permanent control of the building.
Johnson said the city’s commitment to keeping the Art Center open and designated to artists was a big deal.
“The city’s kind of grown up around it and with it,” he said “It’s definitely a staple.”
Alyssa Ross, marketing and communications manager of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, said the art center revitalized Old Town.
“This, in 1974, was the not safe part of town and it definitely brought in a lot of new businesses and revitalized this part of the city,” Ross said. “And as we get into today, it is one of the cultural centers of the region.”
For the 100th anniversary of the 1919 administrative offices’ opening, and the 45th anniversary of the Torpedo Factory Art Center’s opening, the art center will host various events throughout the fall.
One is a micro-documentary profile, headed by storyteller Nora Kubach, and produced by Anthony Istrico, a local film editor and producer, and his team for the 100th anniversary celebration.
The Istrico Productions team is still in the pre-production phase but Istrico said the art center is a beautiful example of a facility that once was used to make weapons of war but now produces art for the community.
“This is a facility that’s been around for  years and Alexandria’s changed a lot in those  years,” Istrico said.
Istrico said that in making the documentary, he’s excited to learn about the artists and the public love for the Torpedo Factory, and what makes that bond so strong.
“There’s something about going into a factory, again where they made bombs … to see it come alive with art, that’s a beautiful expression to me.”