The Torpedo Factory Art Center, a public studio space with associated galleries, workshops, art classes, and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, is on the site of the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station, a formerly top-secret munitions factory constructed in 1918. The NTS produced almost 1,000 submarine torpedoes (Mark XIV) during World War II.
Just one day after the official end of World War I, on
November 12, 1918, the United States Navy began construction on the U.S. Naval
Torpedo Station (NTS) on the site of an old wharf on North Union Street. The
NTS was classified as top secret and no photos of the facility were released
until the end of World War II. The first run of munitions were 908 Mark III
aircraft torpedoes manufactured between 1919 and 1923. During World War II, the
factory expanded into a complex of 11 buildings, where Mark III's and bright
green Mark XIV submarine torpedoes were constructed. The first of the Mark XIV
torpedoes produced at the NTS was finished on April 1, 1941 and shipped out with
the U.S.S. Gudgeon. Though the U.S. had yet to enter the war, the military was
preparing for the possibility. In four years, the NTS produced 9,918 torpedoes
(tested at Piney Point, Maryland), as well as airplane-mounted rocket motors.
1,451 enemy ships were sunk or damaged with NTS-constructed munitions.
An employee newsletter, The
Torp, was published monthly, running news about the war (especially workers
who had gone overseas), bond drives, employee poetry, and worker events such as
talent shows, bowling competitions, and basketball games. A set of 150 wooden
duplexes, called Chinquapin Village, was constructed three miles from the plant
to house workers, who were bussed to and from the factory each day.
After the end of the war in 1945, the plant became a storage
facility for dinosaur bones, Smithsonian art, Congressional documents, and
German war films and records. The City of Alexandria purchased the complex in
1969, and Art League President
Marian Van Landingham, backed by the Alexandria Bicentennial Commission,
proposed to utilize the buildings for studio space for artists. The Torpedo
Factory Artists’ Association was formed, and Van Landingham became the first
Renovations began in May of 1974.
Volunteers and city workers removed 40
truckloads of debris, built new walls, re-worked the electricity and plumbing, and
painted the exterior. Studio walls were built, electricity and plumbing
expanded; all by July of the same year. The Torpedo Factory Art Center opened
its doors to the public on September 15, 1974. After extensive remodeling, a
grand re-opening was held in 1983.
Now, the art center offers
access to 82 studios and two workshops (fiberworks and printmakers), seven
galleries, art classes, a cafe, and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which
offers rotating exhibits on local archaeology, public archaeology Dig
Days and Adventure Lessons with hands-on activities, and the
permanent exhibit, A Community Digs Its Past: The Lee Street
Site which presents a one-block microcosm of the city ,
from the 18th and 19th centuries, including wharves, homes, shops, industries,
and military facilities.