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An Abandoned Trolley Station Is Slowly Becoming Washington, D.C.’s Newest Arts Space

There’s something interesting happening beneath the streets of Dupont Circle.

In its time, the space beneath Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., has been a trolley stop, a fallout shelter, and a food court. For the last 10 years, it’s been nothing at all–14,000 square feet of decay. But now it’s seeing fresh life: as an ambitious arts space.

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Known as the Dupont Underground, the venue will (probably) reopen in mid-fall, according to Braulio Agnese, managing director of the project. One of the first exhibits will involve 750,000 plastic balls donated from the National Building Museum, where they’re currently used for an installation called “The Beach.” Agnese isn’t sure how they’ll be employed in the Underground, but he’s confident the city’s artists will have plenty of ideas.

“People have experienced them one way. Here’s an opportunity to reuse them and create something else compelling,” he says.

The idea of reusing the station first came to Julian Hunt, an architect who lived in Barcelona in the 1990s. He saw how that city was transformed because of the Olympics and a generation of innovative planners and designers, and he wanted to bring some of that back to the capital. When he returned, he didn’t see much of that going on, says Agnese. And it took him 15 years to persuade the city to re-open the station for something else. After the food court closed in 1996, there was a feeling that the place “wasn’t worth anything and that we should get rid of it.”

The Dupont Underground has a series of tunnels and two big platforms, and not everything will open from the beginning. There isn’t the money for that. When Agnese calculated all the costs involved in providing ventilation, heating, restrooms and other necessary amenities for 1,000 people, he found the bill could reach $2 million–which much more than the project has raised so far. The idea, then, is to move incrementally, opening one platform first, then fundraising a full launch later on. To start with, the space will be seasonal, with no heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. “It’s kind of like being outdoors. It just won’t be raining,” Agnese says.

The Dupont Underground joins a long list of projects making use of previously overlooked urban assets. Agnese says he’s particularly inspired by (the very similar) Kunst im Tunnel, in Dusseldorf, Germany, the Old Vic theater’s use of underground space near Waterloo station, in London, and the proposed Lowline underneath Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

He imagines all kinds of things happening at Dupont, including light shows, theater, music and corporate events. The acoustics are fairly unique given the cavernous area and all the hard surfaces. “We’re responding to what the space was originally created for, which is a transit space,” he say. “Large groups of people would go down there but they wouldn’t stay there. It’s designed as a place where people [come in and come out]. It’s not somewhere you stay 24/7.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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