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Photo Courtesy Kathy Strauss, Imagewerks

The Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory: Giving New Life to an Old Building

manassas center for the arts_11x17-2 (1)
Photo Courtesy Kathy Strauss, Imagewerks

You sometimes see them in Manassas and Prince William—vacant old buildings a breath away from the bulldozer. But the boarded-up building once known as the Hopkins Candy Factory in downtown Manassas met a happier fate, gaining new life when it was transformed into the city’s arts center in 2002.Now known as the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory, the red brick fortress-like building sits at 9419 Battle Street next to railroad tracks that once figured prominently in the building’s and city’s history. At four stories tall, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the newly built parking garage across the tracks. Proudly displaying its history, the Candy Factory still has stenciled advertisements for “Manassas Feed & Milling” on the walls outside. It’s spare and industrial inside, yet bustling with arts, theatre and dance classes, and home to two performance troupes: Rooftop Productions and Pied Piper Theatre. But it wasn’t always that way.”The windows were boarded up. Some of the floors weren’t there,” recalled Sally Lay, the Center’s director. “[Yet] it had the potential to be such a beautiful place.  They [the Merchant family, who had owned it] were visionaries.”

A Sweet Start

The Candy Factory’s start came from a vision of a different kind. According to displays in the building, the Hopkins Candy company was founded by C.S. and C.M. Hopkins, brothers from Ohio. Outgrowing a smaller building on Center Street, they decided to build a new, modern factory. They chose the lot adjacent to the railroad tracks on Battle Street. Renowned local architect Albert Speiden designed the factory, which was completed in 1908.

The Hopkins Candy Factory had the latest candy-making machinery including coal-fired copper kettles. It even had a freight elevator and was one of the few businesses in the area with electric lights. Its location next to the train tracks was convenient for unloading raw materials such as sugar and cocoa syrups as well as for shipping the finished product.

Producing 5 to 10 tons of candy daily, the factory shipped to every state east of the Mississippi.  Their inventory included a variety of sweets such as rock candy, ribbon candy and fruit drops.  Their most popular items were peanut butter bars and coconut bars. Some less expensive chocolates were machine coated, but the better sweet cream chocolates were hand dipped by skilled workers.

Despite their early success, the factory stopped producing candy in 1917. Soon after, the Manassas Feed and Milling Company took over the building. That company would eventually become Southern States, and in June 1980, they sold the building to Canton and Mae Merchant who used it as a tire warehouse.

Once they no longer needed the old building for storage, the Merchant family considered their options for the space.  One idea was to create an arts center similar to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.  At around the same time, an arts group across town known as the Center for the Arts was looking for a new building.

Center  for  the  Arts  Comes  to  Manassas

Photo Courtesy Kathy Strauss, Imagewerks
Photo Courtesy Kathy Strauss, Imagewerks

Established in 1984, the Center for the Arts started with a children’s theatre program “in a little house on Grant Avenue,” said Lay. As their programs grew, they moved to two other buildings. “Then we started discussions with the Merchant family who were looking for uses for the building [the Candy Factory],” Lay said. After persuading the Merchant family to let them use the building, the Center for the Arts then had to persuade the city to help restore the aging structure. The City Council was hesitant. Explained Lay, “They weren’t sure an arts center would add to the ambience.” However, a feasibility study showed such a center was just what the city needed to spur economic development.

Manassas mayor Hal Parrish, who served on the City Council at the time, recalled that the Candy Factory and the nearby Harris Pavilion on Center Street started with ideas from the community.

“Sometimes you make a decision as to what you think would be beneficial for the community. Then you look back and realize you made the right decision.  They (the Harris Pavilion and the Candy Factory) have become more than what was expected to be,” Parrish said.

After the Merchant family donated the building to the city in 1998, a $2.3 million year-long renovation began in 2001, overseen by the Manassas Museum system and the City of Manassas. Lay said she worked with then-museum director Scott Harris and the project architect to get exactly what the Center for the Arts wanted from the space.

The Arts Make a Home

Today the Candy Factory is a mix of old and new.  The first floor’s scruffy white brick walls hold an ever-changing gallery space that features many local artists, and in January will showcase the talents of area high school students.  Still visible from the first floor is a 19th-century French drain that was uncovered in the basement during the restoration.  A modern elevator makes the building wheelchair-accessible and leads to office and classroom space on the second floor and a large performance space on the third.  In all, Lay said the building has 12,000 square feet of usable space in addition to a basement.

Despite its prime location, the Center for the Arts still battles for name recognition. When it started in 1984, there were few arts organizations in the area. Now, it is just one of many.

“People do get confused with us and George Mason (University) Center for the Arts and the Hylton Center. We’re always trying to get the word out,” explained Lay.  She doesn’t view the other arts centers in the area as competition because each has its own focus: “Hylton is offering programs on a level that we can’t. We try to work hand in hand with them.” She noted that the center has held summer camps at Hylton and is negotiating to have a Pied Piper performance there as well.

Rather than detracting from the center, Lay believes the other art spaces bring more like-minded people to the area. “If someone came to one of our Rooftop performances and really enjoyed it, they might ask, ‘What else is there?’ I think we feed each other.  I think we complement each other,” she said. “What makes the Center for the Arts unique is that we don’t have a single artistic focus. We do it all. If you want to learn to tango, you can come here. If you want to do a jewelry making class, you can come here.”

Louise Noakes, Center for the Arts education director, said that the center attracts students from a wide area, and offers fundamental classes like drawing or painting as well as  specialized ones such as how to publish digital books.  “We try to offer classes that will appeal to everyone,” she said.

Gainesville resident Shana Ours, whose son just started art classes at the center, said, “I think it’s a great program that they have here for children because not all kids are into sports. Some are into arts and drama. This place has both.”

Veteran ballroom dance instructor Bobbie Brennan said that she enjoys teaching at the Candy Factory: “I love the people who work there. They are so professional, artistic and just nice to be around.”  After explaining that the third-floor space where she and Cookie Bell teach dance classes has a floating floor which is more flexible and better for dancing, Brennan said, “What I love about this floor in particular is my feet never get sore. They never ache and I’m in high heels. I can dance for hours.”

Said art student and Woodbridge resident Liz Hall, “It’s nice to go to a location in Old Town Manassas. You feel like you’re part of the community. It’s nice to have this as a base.” She paused and then added, smiling, “Sometimes it gets a little noisy when there’s a dance class.”

In a little more than ten years, the former Hopkins Candy Factory has evolved from city eyesore to a community center that enriches Manassas and Prince William. Mayor Parrish described the Candy Factory as “a place for the arts—not just the performing arts. It lets people who don’t live in Manassas be a part of Manassas. It’s truly a community place.”

Carla Christiano is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys. She can be reached at
[email protected].

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