On one of the first clear afternoons of spring, sun-seekers and tourists filled Dupont Circle, as they always do on sunny days, for a little people-watching, chess-playing and navel-gazing.
Directly beneath their feet, in the old trolley tunnels beneath the circle, the scene was as different as night from day.
In the subterranean passages, volunteers bundled up in beanies and fleece hovered over worktables, armed with glue and Velcro and the conviction that the dim cavern known as the Dupont Underground could be the District’s next big public attraction. Our own High Line park. Our Broad museum.
They’d already gathered up the rusted old cans of food and water, remnants of the tunnels’ days as fallout shelters. They’d swept away all signs of the squatters who’d left behind several industrial garbage bags’ worth of unseemly stuff. And now, the only thing left to do was to glue, as fast as they could.
Hundreds of thousands of white plastic balls — the stars of last summer’s immensely popular “Beach” installation at the National Building Museum — had been regifted to the Dupont Underground for the tunnels’ first big public reveal, an interactive exhibit dubbed “Raise/Raze” that opens Saturday and runs through June 1. It has transformed the balls into bricks, and the bricks into a living sculpture that visitors will be able to manipulate. The nearly $17 entry tickets have been snapped up for the entire run.
What buyers are clamoring to see, though, may not be the art but the urban myth itself: the subterranean universe beneath Dupont Circle.
Supporters of the Dupont Underground believe that curiosity, and the exhibit’s popularity, could someday make these thousands and thousands of square feet of dark tunnels as much of a draw as the sunny neighborhood above.
The first trolleys rolled into newly built tunnels beneath Dupont Circle in November 1949. The underground stations kept streetcars from mucking up the flow for the growing number of cars that traversed the circle. But by 1962, the D.C. streetcars were retired, replaced by city buses. The 75,000 square feet of tunnels were shuttered.
In the more than five decades since, the Dupont Underground has captured the imagination of more than one speculator. There was a guy who wanted to stash human remains there. In the 1990s, one investor was successful in opening a food court (and then successfully running it into the ground in less than a year).
There was talk of tucked-away strip clubs. A gym. A micro-hotel. Wine caves.
But the grand plan longest in play is the proposal, spearheaded by architect Julian Hunt and his partner and wife, Lucrecia Laudi, to transform the space into an arts playground, a place for avant-garde performances and installations such as “Raise/Raze,” which, in the Underground’s dimly lit curves, takes on the appearance of stalactites and stalagmites made from tiny pearls.
“You have to understand the space, what it was designed for,” Hunt says. “As a station, lots of people went down very quickly and then left. It’s not a space where you hang out.”
Their architecture firm, Hunt Laudi Studio, landed on the idea of using it for exhibitions that people could visit before heading somewhere else for dinner. Since Hunt and Laudi’s initial work, dozens of arts supporters have come on board to push the effort forward.
Reviving the old trolley tunnels “is not an easy project. It’s this huge space. It’s weirdly shaped,” says Paul Ruppert, a real estate manager and entrepreneur formerly involved with the Underground arts group. “It’s not going to be a fit for normal cookie-cutter uses. What could be successful are more unusual creative uses.”
In 2014, the arts group scored a lease with the city to control the Dupont Underground. But the lease is for only five years — not nearly enough time to complete a renovation that will require ventilation, electricity and bathrooms. And not nearly enough time to make a splash in the District’s cultural scene.
“Everybody wants to see it,” says Robin Diener, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. “Everybody wants to be down there.” Couldn’t the Dupont Underground turn the neighborhood into an attraction, the way the High Line has transformed Manhattan’s West Side?
Last year, the neighborhood group put the Underground on its annual house tour, letting the curious down to see the east side of the circle, which is remarkably well-preserved. The curiosity factor was certainly there, she acknowledges.
But as the movement to revive the Underground has dragged on, the city above it has transformed. Does Washington need an underground amenity as much as it needs, say, parks, pools and public spaces for its apartment-dwelling newcomers?
“People don’t raise these questions,” concedes Diener. “I would love to see that underground space become lively and well-used. But it does have challenges.” And “if the city is really planning a streetcar system, wouldn’t it make sense to use it?”
Many neighbors also remember the mid-1990s food court, known as Dupont Down Under, and its embarrassing flameout. Everyone went down at least once, Hunt says, including him and his wife.
Supporters of that project “all got burned,” he says. “They said, ‘We don’t even want to touch that thing.’ So for us, it’s been quite difficult. They say nothing works down there.”
Step onto the chilly platform, devoid of natural light and as eerie as an empty New York subway tunnel, and it’s easy to see why some wouldn’t mind leaving the Underground as it was for a few more decades.
One sign of the wariness: The Underground secured permits for only 49 people in the space at a time — a far cry from the 500 or 1,000 that Hunt and Co. had imagined.
Still, Hunt seemed pleased that ticket sales were going well. His vision, or at least the part of it where people are lining up to visit the Dupont Underground, is becoming reality.
In the days before the opening, the tunnel had warmed a bit. Lighting designers flicked on bright spotlights, which created dramatic shadows and made the plastic balls look more like contemporary art.
But it was still a mad dash. Boxes and bricks of white balls were stacked everywhere, just 72 hours before the first guests would be invited in.
Hunt flitted between the structures, stacking, scurrying, stacking some more.
If this is a success, he’s asked, surely more must be on the horizon. What’s next?
He looks puzzled by the question. “Raise/Raze” is it, he replies. It’s enough to give people a peek, enough to drum up interest, enough to ask for more: a long lease, as long as 21 years. Enough, maybe, to go back to the city and show that the Dupont Underground has a fighting chance.