In 1910, 29 misdemeanant men (arrested in the nation’s capital for drunkenness and petty theft) were shipped to a 1,155 acre tract of land along the Occoquan River in Northern Virginia. Part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive-era reform movement, the low-security-risk prisoners learned a trade (how to make and lay bricks) while building the Workhouse Prison. (The first prisoners slept in tents.) In 1912, the male prisoners built a women’s workhouse to accommodate about 100 new prisoners – 72 of whom were members of the National Women’s Party, arrested while protesting for their right to vote. (That year, Roosevelt on the Bull Moose Party ticket came out for women’s suffrage and lost the presidential election to Woodrow Wilson, who had not.)
After a number of transitions, the Workhouse closed for good in 2001. In 2008 it was brought back to life as the Workhouse Arts Center which provides affordable studios for artists, along cooking lessons, pilates classes, and art exhibitions. The next exhibition, “Mobile Works”, features visitors’ photographs taken on the premises with mobile phones. The pix will be on display on Black Friday, November 23– a day that unfortunately tempts some desperate shoppers to pickpocket and overindulge in spirits. Then again, if it weren’t for thieves and lushes of a century ago, there would be no place to show the art in the first place.