Your Views: Abandoning history

Your Views: Abandoning history
The interior of the Torpedo Factory Art Center. (Photo/Lindsey Sullivan)

To the editor:

It’s troubling to read that the city is considering changing the composition and looks of the Torpedo Factory. It’s an architectural artifact one walks through with great respect for Alexandria’s proud retention of its history in the defense of America.

Hundreds of its torpedoes devastated the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Surigao Strait, saving the forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing on the Philippine beaches. The last U.S. Navy battle to use torpedoes, they were made by non-segregated workers, uncommon in Virginia. My father returned from that battle after the war ended, working briefly at the Torpedo Factory as he started a family.

Afterward, the historic factory became the repository for the Nuremberg trials’ records. It therefore seemed appropriate for our city to purchase this dual armory of war – and archive of its horror – to concomitantly highlight that the creative beauty of art beacons in a peaceful world. The then-Art League president’s vision was to turn the Torpedo Factory into “working studio spaces for artists,” serving the League’s mission: “By nurturing the artist, we enrich the community.”

It’s difficult to imagine the words “Torpedo Factory” in the images the city presents of what this remarkable arsenal and archive could look like in the future. Opting for sweeping white expanses and stylish access to outside observation points and new roof levels for a changed exterior and chic interior, the city abandons the building’s historic significance.

But it’s the loss of individual artist studios – the city’s original purpose in purchasing the Torpedo Factory – that’s most perplexing. Almost half, 40%, are to be replaced, mostly by revenue-generating spaces such as restaurants and retail; the remainder, mostly moved upstairs. New art forms will be brought in, begging the question: Why not accommodate them in the present studios?

Alexandria’s real treasure is that the Torpedo Factory houses the largest number of publicly accessible working artist studios in America. It’s why the Torpedo Factory is already our region’s “go-to” artist residency to find the “piece” that serves one’s expressive need. Our family has found just that on numerous occasions. One was when a Torpedo Factory’s resident artist created the perfect replica of our daughter’s beloved, aging dog, Belle, for her birthday.

Another time, when trying to replicate a set of vintage wine glasses that had broken, we spent days searching in person and on the internet to find someone who could copy the fine engraving of the remaining glass. None could do it, but someone told us there were two artists in America who could, and one was at the Torpedo Factory. The artist’s mesmerizing homeblown engraved glassware confirmed that fact.

The worth of maintaining the character of this historic defense building with all its artists is best summarized by Winston Churchill when he was asked to cut the cultural budget in 1941 in favor of the war effort. He replied: “Then what are we fighting for?”

-Joe Sestak, Alexandria