Construction of the original U.S. Naval Torpedo Station on the Potomac River, in Alexandria, Virginia, began on November 12, 1918. This station was responsible for the manufacture and maintenance of torpedoes for the next five years, when work stopped and the building served as a munitions storage facility until World War II. At this time, round-the-clock production of both submarine-borne and airborne torpedoes resumed, and ten buildings were added to the complex to accommodate the increased activity.
Torpedo production halted in 1945, and eventually the buildings were used for storage by various federal agencies, including Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1969, the City of Alexandria bought the complex of buildings, but an acceptable plan for their use was not found for several years.
Marian Van Landingham, a delegate for the State of Virginia, President of the Alexandria-based Art League, and Projects and Programs Director of the Alexandria Bicentennial Commission, proposed a project to renovate two of the buildings into working studio spaces for artists. Her proposal was endorsed by the Commission in December 1973, and renovations began in May 1974. Artists worked to remove 40 truckloads of debris from the buildings and, after City crews constructed partial studio walls, they painted the interior. The Torpedo Factory Art Center opened to the public in September, 1974. The new complex of artists' studios was filled from a list of juried artists, and Marian Van Landingham became the first Director of the Art Center.
By 1983, the building needed major repairs and improvements. As part of a federal program sale/lease-back agreement, the building was sold to Alexandria Art Center Associates (AACA), leased back from AACA by the City, and subleased to the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association. As part of the sale agreement, the City had a one time repurchase option to be exercised in 1998. On September 1, 1998 the Artists' Association took over all management of the building, and the City now acts as landlord.
In 1998, the Torpedo Factory Art Center boasted of more than eight hundred thousand visitors annually, with eighty-three studios, five cooperative galleries, an art school, and an archaeology laboratory and museum. The artists form the Torpedo Factory Artists Association. The center is also supported by the Friends of the Torpedo Factory.