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Tunnel Vision
D.C. trolley station seeks new life as art gallery
An underground trolley station in Dupont Circle that architect Julian Hunt hopes to turn into an art gallery.
Paul Williams/Dupont Circle

When Washington, D.C.-based architect Julian Hunt first started looking into the possibility of revitalizing the abandoned trolley station underneath D.C.’s Dupont Circle, he discovered that it was even more abandoned than it looked. Not only could no one tell him whose jurisdiction it fell under, the old station was no longer even on the city’s list of properties. “I couldn’t get a building permit for it because it had no registration number,” Hunt said.

The station had operated from 1949 until 1964, at which time it was turned into a Cold War fallout shelter, and was finally boarded up in 1975. Although proposals had surfaced to restore it over the following years, none were successful. Only one attempt got off the ground: A food court called Dupont Down Under opened in 1995, but folded in less than a year, leaving behind a trail of litigation, embarrassing the city, and scaring off potential developers.

A rendering of the gallery Hunt envisions, which could also sport skylights. (CLick to zoom)
Courtesy Dupont Underground

The shells of kiosks from that short-lived food court still litter the station’s tunnel system. Twenty feet below street level, the system consists of two 27-foot-wide, 500-foot-long curved station platforms connected by 18-foot-wide tunnels. Together they form a total circuit of slightly over a half-mile, all made of concrete, with tiled walls.

Having just returned to D.C. after a decade of practicing architecture in Barcelona, Hunt was inspired by that city’s ambitious approach to public spaces and public art, and moved to reclaim what he dubbed the “failed space” of the trolley station. In 2008, he launched the Arts Coalition for Dupont Underground, a nonprofit devoted to turning the station into a vibrant public art gallery and event space that would also offer community services like a media lab and arts education for children.

Hunt envisions an entire underground district eventually blossoming on the former trolley tracks. (Click to zoom)
Courtesy Dupont Underground

Dupont Underground is proposing that the two wider platforms be turned into primary galleries that are finished, well-lit and ventilated, and possibly opened up to the surface to let in sunlight. The narrower connecting tunnels would be secondary galleries. “These would make beautiful linear galleries. It’s a difficult shape, but it’s really predisposed to linear presentations,” Hunt said. Although there are already exits to the surface from the platforms, building staircases from the tunnels up through the sidewalk would be trickier, Hunt acknowledged. In total, he estimates the build-out will require about $10 million.

Dupont Underground’s campaigning finally swayed the D.C. city government. On March 31, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development released a Request for Proposals to turn the station into a “great urban destination,” but cautioned that proposals could not rely on any public funding.

Hunt would also like to see vehicular underpasses decked over, with the new real estate turned into a farmers market, among other things.
Courtesy Dupont Underground

Hunt is working with a team of about 20 lawyers, architects, and real estate brokers to maximize Dupont Underground’s chances of being awarded the RFP. To add weight to their proposal, Hunt has begun negotiating with institutions such as the Hirshhorn Museum, the Corcoran Museum of American Art, and the Philips Collection, discussing possible collaborations that could include offering underground gallery space for a museum-produced show, or drawing upon the museums’ curatorial expertise for an independent exhibition.

Although Dupont Underground will not find out if they won the RFP until after the June 3 deadline, even to have sparked the launch of the RFP is a major step. “There is enormous inertia acting against projects like this," he said. "It’s just easier to leave them buried. It takes a lot of convincing over a long period of time so that people can see the potential of a site like this.”

Julia Galef