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Van Landingham Stuck to Activist Roots

Retiring Alexandria Delegate First Fought to Create Torpedo Factory Art Center

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page B01

In 1973, a tall, dark-haired artist rode her bike through Alexandria toward the Potomac River in search of an opening to the waterfront. She pedaled up Duke, King, Prince and Queen streets, but all were closed off with cyclone fencing. Finally she found an unlocked gate at the end of Cameron Street, slipped through to the rotting docks and burst into tears.

"I cried with excitement that finally I had reached the water," recalled Marian Van Landingham, the artist, who now lives a few blocks away from the spot. "Here you are, right on the river, and you couldn't get to it."

Del. Marian Van Landingham, with her dogs, said "there's a transient nature" about legislation, but "the Torpedo Factory -- it's concrete." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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That search for the waterfront -- and her subsequent battle to return it to the community -- would become a defining motif for Van Landingham. In 1974, she led a crusade to transform a hulking concrete torpedo factory there into a thriving arts center. It is perhaps her proudest accomplishment, and the one that helped launch her career as in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she has served for 23 years.

That career is coming to a close. Last month Van Landingham, 67, who is battling a recurrence of cancer, announced that she will retire this year. She is leaving at the peak of her power -- in another year she would have been the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee -- but Van Landingham, whose district includes most of Alexandria and parts of Fairfax and Arlington counties, has other laurels to look back on.

She is the most senior female delegate and the 11th most senior member in the House. She was the first woman to chair the Privileges and Elections Committee, and she has chaired the transportation and public education subcommittees of Appropriations. She initiated legislation to fund programs that teach English as a second language, dedicate lottery money to public schools and reduce class sizes. She pushed for funding for the handicapped and homeless and for child care for poor families.

Most visibly, the Torpedo Factory Art Center stands today as an anchor for Old Town Alexandria. It has helped make the area a tourist magnet, and it has been imitated in other towns in Virginia and beyond.

In 1974, the building -- built in 1918 to manufacture torpedoes -- was a forbidding military storage area that the city had bought from the federal government. Local artists were being priced out of the area, but no one seemed to see the graceless mass of concrete for what it could be.

"There's nothing there, and then Marian comes along with her view of it and her vision of what things can be," said Andra Patterson, president of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, who considers Van Landingham a mentor. "Marian looked at this unused space and said, 'Aha! Arts center!' "

The factory's renovation, which led to a renewal of Alexandria's dilapidated waterfront and the opening of Founders Park, was Van Landingham's first real political crusade. It involved lobbying City Council members and winning over residents who considered the 20th-century factory a blight on their 18th-century cityscape.

Van Landingham, then president of the Art League, proposed transforming it into a multistory gallery of studios. For a small rent, painters, sculptors and other artists could work in spaces that would be open to the members of the public, who could watch them work and perhaps buy their art.

The idea was not universally embraced. Some residents saw the leaky, drafty, pigeon-infested building as an eyesore and pushed to have it demolished and replaced with green space. In "On Target," a book she wrote about the process, Van Landingham described how she dealt with opponents -- not by shouting them down but by casting the renovation as a Bicentennial project and by inviting naysayers to tour the premises.

Retired city manager and longtime friend Vola Lawson recalled first seeing Van Landingham when she arrived at City Hall to press her cause and being impressed with her dignity and poise.

"People listened to her," Lawson said. "She was passionately committed to starting that Torpedo Factory Art Center, and she was a very persuasive lobbyist. She was really able to catch the council in the web of her dream."

Later, as a legislator, Van Landingham would continue that approach. "She would spend hours and hours lobbying individuals," Lawson said. "She was well prepared and analytical and always kept her cool."

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