The story of Dupont Cir­cle’s aban­doned street­car tun­nel and un­der­ground plat­forms.

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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.

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.

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.

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,



In 1949, a street­car heads for the new tun­nel un­der Dupont Cir­cle. Be­fore that, the cars trav­eled at street level on the cir­cle’s west side.

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