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Caverns and Canyons of the Capital

"It's a fun job," he said, seriously.

Below Dupont Circle, the center of one of the city's trendiest commercial and residential areas, is its alter ego: a sunless complex of defunct shops, trolley tunnels and offices that resembles the set of an apocalyptic disaster movie. City officials said it is one of the largest abandoned underground spaces that they know of, a dank, other-worldly realm of streetcars undesired.

One recent morning, Tangherlini strolled through the tunnels -- bravely, a flashlight in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Nothing appeared to stir in the tunnels, not even rats, but there were blankets and graffiti, evidence of recent stirrings. "Welcome," someone had written in black marker on a tiled wall, "to the Magic Mushroom Patch."

Benjamin Johnson, 5, foreground, and his brother, Van, get the attention of a sea turtle at the below-street-level National Aquarium. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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Tangherlini made his way past the detritus on the concrete floor, past building supplies, a child's bicycle, jackets, old newspapers, lighters. In one room, he stumbled upon some books ("Mastering the Zone: The Next Step in Achieving SuperHealth and Permanent Fat Loss"), and in another he found a surprisingly clean stack of green food trays. "This is a classic example of what you're not supposed to do in a horror movie," joked Tangherlini, as others on the tour wandered into the darkness. A dead body, after all, was discovered here one Sunday evening in January.

Twin streetcar tunnels that opened in 1949 run on both sides of the Connecticut Avenue underpass and skirt the outer rim of the circle. Two station areas total 42,600 square feet, and trolley tubes located 15 to 20 feet below the surface of the road stretch about 700 feet north of the circle and 300 feet south, city officials said. The streetcars stopped running in 1962, and the fate of the tunnels has remained a question mark ever since.

An Alexandria businessman proposed converting them in 1982 into a national sanctuary for the ashes of the dead. That didn't gain much interest. In February 1995, part of the complex reopened as Dupont Down Under, but the food court and retail area closed soon after when the project ran into disrepair, litigation and other problems. The District terminated its lease with developer Geary Simon in 1996, but by then, most of the tenants already had left.

The shops -- Schlotzsky's Deli, Taste of India, Dupont Bagelry -- are nothing more than shells now, but their facades still look like streetcars, complete with plastic wheels. The real trolleys are gone, but along the bottom of the curved, concrete tunnels runs the steel track. Tangherlini said there are no proposals to develop the space.

After the tour, a security officer locked up the staircase, but not before Tangherlini grabbed a few souvenirs of his journey underground to take back to the office: food trays, newly exposed to the light of day.

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