In 1949, a streetcar heads for the new tunnel under Dupont Circle. Before that, the streetcars traveled at street level on the circle’s west side. (The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The progress in developing the underground trolley station at Dupont Circle has made me curious: Were there also aboveground trolleys at Dupont Circle? I remember a story my father told about an event in the late 1940s. A friend of his had just moved to Washington and was driving home from a party. When he started going around Dupont Circle, he was shocked to see a trolley coming straight toward him. Supposedly, an influential person living in a house on Dupont Circle had arranged that no trolleys would run on her side of Dupont Circle. As a result, trolleys ran in both directions on parallel tracks on only one side of the circle. Does this story fit with your knowledge of Dupont Circle’s history?

Edward Tabor,

Bethesda

The influential person’s name was Cissy Patterson, owner of the Washington Times-Herald newspaper, who lived at No. 15 Dupont Circle. However, the stories about Patterson throwing her weight around to keep the streetcar from passing her side of Dupont Circle — the east side — are apocryphal.

The streetcar underpass opened in 1949. Almost immediately after the tunnel closed in 1961, thoughts turned to how to repurpose the space. (The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

This is not to say Patterson didn’t have opinions about how streetcars would affect her palatial home. More on that later. First, let us envision how the streetcars once traversed Dupont Circle.

Before the tunnel opened in 1949, aboveground streetcars — both those heading south and those heading north — went around Dupont Circle on the west side. That means that trolleys heading north went clockwise, which is not the way cars use the circle. This could cause confusion to unsuspecting drivers, who would suddenly see a streetcar bearing down on them.

This was done because the west side of the circle was the location of a set of tracks dating to the horse-drawn streetcars of the 1870s that ran to Georgetown. As the line was modernized over the years, the west-side alignment was kept.

Patterson did throw her weight around in one regard. In 1945, as concern grew over atrocious traffic jams at Dupont Circle (the city’s worst at the time), the city proposed digging a tunnel for vehicles and an underground trolley platform. Plans called for five entrances on the east side and five on the west. Patterson objected to the one on P Street, claiming the underground passageway would burrow under her dining room, weakening the house’s foundation and becoming a public nuisance where “acts of immorality” might be committed.

That entrance was not built.

The underpass opened Nov. 2, 1949. Northbound streetcars entered the tunnel at N Street NW. Those headed south entered at S Street NW. (Today, plantings mark the spots.)

The tunnel closed in December 1961 when the streetcar line that used it was converted to buses. Almost immediately, thought turned to how to repurpose the space. Merchants wanted the tunnels filled and topped with parking. Proposals for the subterranean areas included bomb shelters, newsstands, lunch counters, shops or storage for cars impounded by the police.

Answer Man’s favorite suggestion: In 1982, businessman John C. Pappas proposed the tunnel hold inurned human remains. Pappas described “the creation of a beautiful, quiet and civilized nationally recognized prestigious place of honor — a Columbarium of Niches to accommodate the remains of those who have passed on with the express wish in having their ashes placed in a national sanctuary similar to the Westminster Abbey of London, England.”

City officials didn’t go for that. The space was designated as a fallout shelter, complete with emergency supplies, though those were vandalized. In the 1990s, the west side was briefly a food court.

The newest effort, Dupont Underground, will use the space to host art and design exhibitions, performances, community events and film shoots.

[ See a graphic of the Dupont Circle streetcar tunnel layout .]

Braulio Agnese , managing director of Dupont Underground, first visited the site five years ago.

“In the early days we were doing it all in the dark, by flashlight, getting to know the space,” he said. “You’d turn a corner with the limited visibility of a flashlight to try to get a feel for the space.”

Once lights were installed, the space was transformed. “There’s an almost cathedral-like aspect of it,” Braulio said.

He added: “Underground spaces have this long history in the human psyche as places of fascination, but also a little bit of terror. There’s a push and pull: You want to explore them, but you’re a little afraid of them.”

Washingtonians will have the chance to experience those emotions for themselves next month, if Dupont Underground opens on schedule.

Twitter: @johnkelly

Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com .

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.