D.C. art activists see old trolley station as buried treasure

Once an underground trolley station at Dupont Circle, this abandoned, dusty tunnel could become a social nexus for Washington's arts community and the general public.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

Hidden 25 feet below the earth -- beneath the elegant circular park, the trendy shops and the bustling Starbucks -- another part of Dupont Circle sits empty, eerily quiet and largely forgotten.

In cold, pitch-black tunnels strewn with garbage, spider webs and half-empty bottles of liquor lie 100,000 square feet of white-tiled space left behind in 1962, after the last streetcar cleared the Dupont Circle trolley station. Trolley tracks line the crescent-shaped concrete tunnels. The trolley-shaped facades of the short-lived Dupont Down Under food court, which failed miserably in 1996, fill one of the former station platforms.

The air, largely undisturbed for 14 years, has the earthy smell of a cave.

This is where architect Julian Hunt envisions a series of hip galleries called Dupont Underground, where up to 1,500 people at a time would take in avant-garde art shows and exhibits of experimental architecture. Museum-quality lighting would fill curved hallways, and a sophisticated ventilation system would keep the humidity to art gallery standards. As Hunt sees it, the depths of Dupont Circle would become the go-to spot for the visual arts in Washington.

"This enormous piece of infrastructure has just been mothballed," said Hunt, who said he has been pushing the idea for five years. "If you get enough people down there and there's interesting artwork and it's well lit, I think it would be quite a spectacular space, unlike anything else in the District."

A vision amid the rubble

The proposal, promoted by a group of artists and architects called the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground, is the latest pitch for reopening the trolley station abandoned beneath one of the city's most expensive and colorful neighborhoods. On Thursday, Hunt and other project supporters toured the space with District officials, using beams from their flashlights to step around the trash and rubble while pointing out what they see as untapped potential.

"This is a linear gallery right here, just like in a museum," Hunt said, illuminating a 16-foot-tall, gray concrete wall blemished with dark splotches and dried drops of black tar.

The District plans to put out a request for proposals next month to solicit other ideas for the space, said Neil Goradia, a project manager with the deputy mayor's office for planning and economic development. He was among the 35 people who toured the tunnels accompanied by two police officers. (The eight stairwells that serve as aboveground entrances surrounding the circular park are bolted shut with large slabs of rusting steel. But the soiled blankets, a dirty sock and even a fake Christmas tree down below reveal what was once a homeless camp, and a body was discovered there in 2004.)

The proposals do not have to be arts-oriented, Goradia said. Hunt's group is the only one to approach the city recently, he said.

Other ideas that lost traction over the years have included high-end shops, a gym, strip clubs displaced by Nationals Park and a burial site for cremated remains. Goradia said he could imagine an aquarium there.

"A lot of interesting things could be done here, because it's such an interesting space," Goradia said as he walked one of the two parallel tunnels that run beneath Connecticut Avenue NW and wrap around each side of the circular park. "But you really have to think about it because there's no light, and it's cavernous."

Even so, open space is in high demand in a high-rent district where even a deep economic recession has done little to temper demand from people who want to live and work there.

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