In the 113 years since his death, the rear admiral must have turned over in his grave not once but several times.
How could he know that the traffic circle named after him by Congress would become Washington's epicenter, its Place de la Concorde, if you wish, more important to the local citizenry than the Capitol building, the White House, the Mall?
And what would the rear admiral have said had he been witness to the demonstrations, the busts, the happenings, the -- but wait. First, some basic history.
Samuel Francis du Pont -- hence, Dupont Circle -- was born in 1803, in the du Pont de Nemours family.
At the age of 12, he became a midshipman, found his destiny and began a long career of "constant and continuous devotion to the navy and the country."
He rose steadily in rank: lieutenant in 1826, commander in 1842, captain in 1855, rear admiral in 1862. He participated in the war against Mexico and, when the Civil War broke out, he "stood prominently forward, by the side of Farragut and Foote, as one to whom might safely be entrusted the honor and welfare of his country, in this, her hour of need."
The Civil War proved his undoing.
As commander in chief of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, he failed to take Fort Sumter after an hour-and-a-half battle that cost him one of his eight ships. That the ships involved were of the wrong type for such an assault was apparently not considered by his superiors.
The rear admiral was relieved of command. He returned home and died quietly in 1865, "a thorough seaman, an accomplished officer, a Christian gentleman," according to naval historian Foxhall A. Parker.
In 1884, Congress, perhaps with a hint of guilt, commissioned sculptor Launt Thompson to create a statute of du Pont. The work cost $10,000 and was unveiled December 20, 1884. What was known as Pacific Circle was officially rechristened Dupont Circle.
There was a hitch. The du Pont family did not like Launt Thompson's statute. Discreet enquiries were made and a deal was struck, whereby the family, at no cost to Congress or the city, would be allowed to have the monument of its choice erected in the circle.
The du Ponts commissioned Daniel Chester French to create a monument worthy of the rear admiral's name. French, America's foremost sculptor (according to legend, he learned his craft as a child by hiding in his parents' root cellar and carving potatoes), envisioned a fountain, supported by three figures representing the sea, the stars and the winds.
But there were difficulties, even before work began.
The original statute had to be taken down and shipped to Delaware, the du Pont home state.
There was a lack of water for the fountain, and a lack of power to pump the water.
The first block of marble split and had to be replaced.
Through it all, the du Ponts, apparently unconcerned by the mounting costs, footed the bills, and in 1921, the fountain was officially dedicated. All in all, the project cost $77,521.
The Dupont Circle area, at that time, was genteel and well-heeled, with private clubs and spacious townhouses overlooking wide, tree-lined avenues. The circle, with its benches for adults and sandpiles for children, was an elegant park where English nannies wheeled baby carriages and exchanged news. There were underpasses for the trolley cars, and a complicated and often out-of-control system of traffic lights to handle the growing numbers of cars.
As the city grew, Dupont Circle took on a new role. It became a meeting place for the newly arrived, the workless, the disaffected young, the aspiring literati of what was, although the Nation's Capital, still only a provincial town.
In the mid-'60s, Dupont Circle witnessed the arrival of the flower children, then of the demonstrators and policemen. It earned a reputation as the place to score drugs in D.C., to bring a guitar and play at Dylan, to pass a joint surreptitiously with an eye out for the local cop, to soapbox, to protest. There were religious freaks, gays, Black Panthers, SDSers, musicans, pushers, buyers, narcs. They made the island in Connecticut Avenue their own, and the circle lived from early one morning until early the next.
Today, Dupont Circle is still an island, but its popularity with the counter-culture has dimmed somewhat. The townhouses and ornate apartment buildings on the side streets maintain their elegance, and there are still free concerts and dance recitals, but the circle is no longer a political meeting place. Rather, it is a locus around which the realty prices have soared, a haven for the lunchers who on warm days swarm, a maddening display of rush-hour artistry. And business, of course, has grown.
Connecticut Avenue remains the main drag, with a profusion of shops, galleries, restaurants and office buildings; but some of the best bargains and most pleasing sights are to be found off-Connecticut, on P Street and on Massachusetts Avenue in particular.
One bit of advice: walk, don't drive. Parking near Dupont Circle is akin to parking in Georgetown, which is to say impossible.