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

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; B01

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.

Hunt said underground galleries and events would better connect the Washington area's arts and architecture communities with the general public.

"D.C. is a very challenging place for the visual arts in general because they're not centralized at all," said Adam Griffiths, a project supporter and membership director for the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts. "There's no arts district here. You might have galleries clustered in groups of two or three, but there's no place to go to help the arts spiral out into the surrounding area."

Creating a destination

Under Hunt's plan, the city would lease the space to the arts coalition.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the proposal has support from the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission, citizens association and businesses.

"Everyone is intrigued by the idea," Evans said.

The challenge, he said, would be in luring large numbers of people below ground. "It needs to be a destination place that people will come to," Evans said. "If there's a draw there and the overhead is low, you might be able to pull it off."

Connecting it to the Dupont Circle Metro station would improve the chances for success, Evans said, but "no one has any money to do that."

Hunt said he estimates it would cost $500,000 to "sweep it out and turn on the lights" to open as a bare-bones space and up to $5 million to add "elegant, beautiful lighting" up to museum standards, a high-quality ventilation system and a freight elevator to carry heavy, delicate pieces of art.

Hunt said his group plans to fund the project primarily with private donations. The site could cover its operating costs by charging admission for some events, he said.

Light and safety

Hunt said he has thought through solutions to the obvious potential problems: Security? Lots of people and good lighting. Handicapped access? A wheelchair lift along the stairwell entrances and, eventually, a new elevator. Claustrophobia? Flood the stairwells with natural light and install artificial lights that give the space an open feel.

And what if the city revives the streetcar line that once connected Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan with downtown? The art galleries would simply have to move, Hunt said. "We'd have a light footprint, so it would be easy to do," he said.

Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, said his 70 members want whatever happens underground to draw more foot traffic to the restaurants and stores above.

"We've already experienced one failure," Grandis said, referring to the short-lived food court. "We're not interested in another feel-good idea."

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