Washingtoniana: What’s Under Dupont Circle?

In this week’s edition of Washingtoniana—our Thursday feature where we collect your questions about Washington and do some sleuthing to find the answers—we find out what the deal is with what’s below Dupont Circle.

Alejandro Salinas asks: “What is Dupont Underground? Where is the entrance located? What’s the story behind it?”

The National Capital Trolley Museum staff and the Web helped us unravel the mystery of the Underground, while members of the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground discussed its possible reincarnation with us. Read on for the scintillating answers!

Dupont Underground is an abandoned streetcar/trolley terminal and tunnel, which is located underneath Dupont Circle but above the Metrorail tracks. Several boarded-up entrances can be seen around the circle, including spots near PNC Bank and Krispy Kreme.

The streetcar tunnel was completed in 1949, according to Vernon Winn of the National Capital Trolley Museum. On the north side of the circle, the streetcar would stop at a station just below the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street, and from there it would descend and follow a path under the western perimeter of the circle, Winn explains. Three stops were located in the underground, and the streetcars would resurface south on Connecticut Avenue around N or M Street. The southbound streetcar followed a similar path, Winn says, but went under the eastern perimeter of the circle.

The popularity of automobiles caused streetcars to scale back, and after the Capital Transit Company, which owned them, became DC Transit in the 1950s, instructions were given to switch to a bus system. The DC streetcars last operated on January 28, 1962, according to the trolley museum’s Web site, and one of the cars is on display at the museum.

The tunnels were refurbished and used for a short time as an ill-fated food court, called Dupont Down Under. That closed in 1996, and the space has been vacant since 1997. In 2006, WashCycle suggested that the abandoned area be used as a bike-commuter lot. A year later, DC Councilmember Jim Graham proposed that it be used to house adult clubs and gay bars, to replace those that were forced to close when the Nationals stadium was built, according to a Washington Blade article.

The Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground recently launched a campaign to reopen the station and tunnels as a gallery for the arts community. In order to use the space, coalition ad-hoc committee member Adam Griffiths said it would need air conditioning, heat and humidity control, and new lighting.

“We don’t plan to use the track portion of the space at all,” he says, “or alter the space much other than to make it functional for art.”

The tunnel has two platforms that each can hold 1,500 people. One side is in pristine condition, while the other has rotting debris left behind from the food court, according to Julian Hunt, the architect working on the project. After a simple cleaning and airing out, it will be suitable for people.

“You open up the old entries to the way they used to be—the gates would close in the evenings—and the place would air itself out,” Hunt explains.

He estimates that the space would cost $50,000 “to sweep it out and turn on the lights” without incorporating an HVAC system, and minimal conditioning for exhibition space would run about $250,000 because the area is quite large.

Don’t get too excited about the new spot, because the city still needs to gain control of the lease before handing it over for the project. Griffiths says this step is almost complete.


Originally published on Washingtonian.com

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