It was an audacious idea from the outset: turn a pair of abandoned trolley platforms beneath Dupont Circle into a lively exhibition space capable of hosting concerts, art galleries, wine tastings or film screenings.
When they signed a five-year lease with the District government for the space — called the Dupont Underground — organizers envisioned such a venue and more, including eventually adding new connections with the neighborhood above.
Those aspirations have been curtailed somewhat by tangible realities.
The underground space consists of about 75,000 square feet, comprised of tunnels and two former train platforms. At first the Dupont Underground group hoped to launch by opening the doors to the east platform and inviting crowds of 500 or 1,000 people. But repurposing the stark, barren platform built more than 50 years ago to accommodate trains from the city’s original streetcar system into a welcoming modern space for visitors did not prove easy.
When Braulio Agnese, managing director of Dupont Underground (formerly the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground), got into the details of providing ventilation, electricity, water and bathrooms for 1,000 people, the costs added up to more than $2 million — or more than 30 times what the group has raised to date.
“As we started work down there we realized that there were a lot of major hurdles,” Agnese said. “There was a lot to be done there.”
Waiting to open until the money could be raised seemed like a step backward, in part because the Dupont Underground group had already received interest from a variety of companies and artists interested in using the space for projects such as whiskey tastings and musical recordings.
Agnese said they had also received interest from the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development for using the underground on camera.
Speed became a priority.
“We think it’s important to get open as soon as possible, so we can get the public down there. That way, film crews and television producers and commercial photographers can begin to do things,” he said.
So after a bare-bones fundraising effort, which netted close to $57,000 through an online campaign at Fundable.com, Dupont Underground hired a director of real estate, Patrick P. Smith, to begin advancing the organization’s designs.
Beginning in July, Agnese and Smith said they plan to have part of the east platform — an almost completely barren space — open for up to 99 people at a time. It’s a slimmed-down version of what they’d originally pictured, but they hope the earlier start time will help them build public support for the project and raise money, albeit with much smaller crowds.
Once fundraising picks up, they plan to begin upgrades on the west platform at a lower estimated cost of $750,000. That portion of the underground was used for about a year as a food court in the mid-1990s, and some of the electrical wiring, ventilation and sprinkler pipes can be reused.
The underground is one of a handful of proposed remakes of industrial infrastructure underway in and around the District, some of them modeled in part on New York City’s High Line Park .
It is not the most well-capitalized, however. Organizers of the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park, a project that would traverse the Anacostia River, are pushing to raise some $40 million, and the D.C. government has already committed $14.5 million.
By contrast, the District is charging the Dupont Underground organizers rent, to the tune of $30,000 a year over five years (though it can all be paid in a lump sum of $150,000 at the end).
Agnese said he was not sure what the kickoff event will be, though there may be a May demolition party for volunteers who would like to help prepare the space. Health insurance would be required.