Even great cities are full of mistakes. It’s what they do with those mistakes that distinguishes them. Take, for example, the High Line in New York City, a gorgeous strip of parkland wrested from the rusting skeleton of an elevated railroad, or the slow, determined reclamation of the Los Angeles River from its concrete encasement. Then there’s the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a former weapons depot and Superfund site just outside Denver. It’s now a lush expanse where bison roam.
To this list, add the Dupont Underground, with its unlikely story of a trolley station turned destination for the arts.
Although it is today serviced by a generally well-functioning subway system, D.C. was once connected by a network of trolleys on its streets. The Dupont Circle station was built in 1949, the only below-surface station in the network. The timing proved unfortunate. This was the era of the automobile’s ascendancy, and trolleys were increasingly seen as the inefficient, clanging relics of a slower era.
The station closed in 1962, a year after the infamous Beltway highway that rings Washington first opened to drivers. During the Cold War years, Dupont Circle’s station was set aside as a bomb shelter. In 1982, according to The Washington Post, a proposal was put forward to turn the station into a storage chamber for human ashes, “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.”
That didn’t come to pass.
By the 1990s, fears of nuclear apocalypse receded, and the long-disused station became a food court called Dupont Down Under. Its purveyors were, according to reports from that time, of the fast food variety.
“This is a food court with a theme and, naturally, the theme is streetcars—there are 16 trolleylike stalls lining the inner wall of the arc, where the actual trains used to run,” The Post reported in a mildly enthusiastic 1995 report. “It’s all as fake as fake can be: The wheels of these definitively ersatz vehicles are made of flimsy, vacuum-molded plastic. Adding to the theme-park ambiance are the furnishings—wrought-iron tables and chairs fit for a backyard barbecue, and the inevitable pots with real plants that look machine-made. The lighting is unpleasantly cold too.”
The food court lasted less than a year.
The next halfway credible plan was for the station to house adult clubs. One local city council member deemed it an “intriguing idea,” but others apparently found the notion of a subterranean sex den a bit too on-the-nose. The adult clubs never arrived, and the Dupont Circle trolley station remained empty, a testament to unrealized possibilities.
It was this emptiness that attracted Julian Hunt, an architect who moved to Washington in 2005 from Barcelona. Exploring the area with an urbanist’s curiosity, he became interested in the Dupont Circle station, in which he glimpsed the kind of raw, authentic space that would attract history buffs with an intrepid streak. He formed a not-for-profit, Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground, and secured a lease for the station from the city. In 2015, he used the website Fundable to raise $56,000 to “revitalize the abandoned trolley station beneath Dupont Circle for presenting, producing, and promoting cutting-edge arts, architecture, design, and creative endeavors.” His plan mostly called for leaving the space as it was, without investing in major renovations.
Leadership changes, however, have resulted in changed priorities. Today, the Dupont Underground is led by a dynamic two-woman duo: Susan Corrigan, a veteran of the arts world, and Sarah Lerner, a young graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The two women radiate energy. Where others see emptiness, or concrete, they see possibility.
“It was gray and unnecessary items cluttered the entire space,” Corrigan says. She joined Dupont Underground in 2017. Her initial impression of the place is less an indictment than a statement of how much work still remains to turn Dupont Underground into a thriving arts destination.
“I could see it had great potential,” she says.
Today, about four fifths of the 75,000 square foot station is closed to the public, but the space retains the obvious feel of a public transportation depot, starting with the red street-level entrance and stairs leading down. The subterranean platform itself is an apron of concrete fronting a curve of tracks along which, alas, no trains run today. But the white tile remains, as does a partially deteriorated sign pointing to a New Hampshire Avenue exit.
Graffiti, once seen as a sign of urban blight, has come to be recognized as a uniquely urban means of artistic expression. The Dupont Underground celebrates the form in a wall that runs the length of the platform, with panels by thirteen local street artists, each with his or her own sensibility. Instead of clashing, the works compound into a kind of kinetic chorus. The graffiti wall is, in some ways, the only permanent collection in Dupont Underground, other than the station itself, which evokes both municipal grandeur and some forgotten medieval catacomb.
Politics so thoroughly dominate Washington, D.C., that it’s easy to forget the city is one of the nation’s greatest destinations for the arts, with some of the best fine arts museums not just in the United States but the entire world: the National Gallery, the Phillips, the Hirshhorn.
Dupont Underground’s primary focus used to be history, explains Lerner, and while the organization has no plans to efface the past, it wants to focus more thoroughly on the present, catering to the district’s young, diverse and culturally savvy population. That means using the station as a kind of art gallery. Recent shows have included “An Odyssey,” a collection of video works by Brian Dailey. The lighting and climate in the station provide a challenge, making traditional exhibitions unlikely. But that could also be a blessing at a time when younger audiences aren’t entirely engaged by paintings on a wall. An upcoming exhibition will feature an augmented reality component.
The Dupont Underground also regularly plays host to events, including a stage production of Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest (with cocktails served) and a performance by gospel singer and drummer Dante Pope.
“It’s almost like a speakeasy for the arts,” Corrigan says. There is something subversive about an art gallery fashioned out of a trolley station. The Dupont Underground is a rebuttal to the city’s gilded surface and a reclamation of its funkier history. Below the surface, something quite original is at work.
Photos: Eli Meir Kaplan
Alexander Nazaryan is a National Correspondent for Yahoo News. His time in D.C. is split between covering national politics on Capitol Hill and exploring the far corners of the Metro Area.