Dupont Underground founder Julian Hunt Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As growing cities like D.C. hurtle to prosperity after decades of decline, some of them face an unexpected problem: what to do with the defunct but captivating spaces hidden beneath their streets.

In London, a cocktail bar and a hydroponic farm have moved into underground air-raid shelters left behind from World War II. In New York, there’s a plan to turn a disused trolley terminal in the Lower East Side into a subterranean park called the Low Line (a nod to its aboveground counterpart, the super-popular High Line).

The District has its own buried ruins of obsolete transit. Two streetcar tunnels dating to the 1940s begin underneath Connecticut Avenue and head north to Dupont Circle, where they diverge, each making an underground semicircle around the park. The tunnels then continue up Connecticut to just past Q Street NW. They cover a mile in total and, with their platforms, comprise 75,000 square feet—an area larger than a football field.

After D.C.’s streetcars stopped running in the early 1960s the tunnels were sealed off, then converted to a fallout shelter and stocked with enough rations to feed 1,700 people for a couple of weeks. In the 1990s a businessman attempted to revive part of the space as a food court called Dupont Down Under. The project was a disaster, closing after just 15 months. That scared off any underground revivalists for a while, and the tunnels remained abandoned as their entrances gave fleeting shelter to the homeless.

Several years ago, a newly formed arts group petitioned D.C. to turn the trolley platforms into a cultural venue it christened the Dupont Underground, and in 2014 the group signed a five-year lease with the city, which owns the subterranean space. Last summer, the DU was the setting for “Raise/Raze,” an interactive installation by the studio Hou de Sousa that repurposed 650,000 of the white plastic balls used in the National Building Museum’s installation “The Beach.” It sold out and became a minor Instagram sensation.

Now the Dupont Underground is hosting an a-la-carte mix of art installations, fashion shows, DJ sets, lectures, protest-related gatherings, and theatrical performances. It offers 45-minute tours of the tunnels at $15 a pop and rents out the east platform for private events. With a temporary certificate of occupancy allowing up to 400 people inside, and growing name recognition, the DU is closer to being a permanent public fixture than ever before. But its existence is nevertheless tenuous. 

A few of the things the Underground lacks: running water, proper lighting, bathrooms, air conditioning, and disabled access. Getting part of the space—the east platform—up to basic operating standards will cost at least $250,000, says Julian Hunt, the founder of the eponymous nonprofit that manages the Dupont Underground. A museum-grade buildout would require about $5 million. 

Hunt, an architect who leads the local Hunt Laudi Studio with his wife, Lucrecia Laudi, has a grand vision to turn the space into a cultural institution that’s both edgier than the museums on the Mall and more flexible than the small galleries around town. He sees it playing a role something like PS1, the contemporary-art lab of the Museum of Modern Art, or the Serpentine Gallery in London. “Ultimately, we would want to be part of a constellation of international galleries with similar missions and similar size,” Hunt says. “Not the national-scale galleries, and not the local, either. This is a niche that the District has never been part of. It didn’t have a gallery at that scale.” 

Hunt contrasts D.C. unfavorably against Barcelona, where he used to live, in terms of the stature of artists and architects and their role in shaping urban life. He wants DU to become a magnet for cultural impulses that are now latent—driven underground, you might say—or eclipsed by the goings-on of federal Washington. “We want to be the place where the identity of the city is explained and defined and broadcast,” Hunt says.

Programming in the DU has picked up in recent months. Descend to the east platform today and you’ll see evidence of various activities: graffiti murals, leftover balls from “Raise/Raze,” posters from a People’s Climate March event, and a bare-bones theater set. Last week, D.C.’s Alliance for New Music-Theatre began a short run of the play Protest by Czech dissident (and later president) Václav Havel

Next on the nonprofit’s agenda is securing a building permit and a certificate of occupancy for up to 1,500 people. There is a mystery to solve with DC Water (“We have a dry pipe and nobody knows why,” Hunt says), and the Underground will need a mechanized chair lift. Longer-term, Hunt anticipates installing LED lighting and possibly cutting a skylight through the median of Dupont Circle. Ideally, he would also build stairs from the tunnels up to the park in Dupont, and he has proposed putting a lid over the lanes of Connecticut as they dip below the circle to form a new “cap park,” which would also be an entrance for the Underground. (DDOT finds the cap-park plan feasible.) 

But all this depends on money. So far, the Dupont Underground has received no city funds, major grants, or big philanthropic gifts. The nonprofit employs a staff of three, and Hunt says they are paid out of revenues from event rentals and tours. 

His hope is to partner with a like-minded developer who will build out half the space for a commercial purpose and support a cultural mission in the other half. The challenge is finding the right use. Proposals have come and gone: a winery, a restaurant, a micro-hotel. Although a subterranean “pod hotel” sounds claustrophobic, it’s easy to imagine a trendy restaurant or nightclub inside the concrete vault. 

Under the terms of its lease with the city, the nonprofit must pay $150,000 in rent by 2019. Its staff and board have experienced high turnover in the past couple of years. If it can’t attract a private investor or count on financial help from the city, it seems likely to run out of cash and momentum.

Submerged urban spaces have a powerful appeal. The problem is that by definition, they’re out of sight, out of mind. The DU is also in an affluent area with no need for economic stimulus. The 11th Street Bridge Park, by contrast, secured a substantial financial commitment from the city thanks to  its pledge to spur equitable development east of the river.

Hunt’s vision may have to be scaled back considerably. But it would be a pity if the Dupont Underground were open only for flashlight tours, or not at all. In Houston, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership turned a former drinking-water reservoir, the Cistern, into an arts space. The first phase of Philadelphia’s Rail Park, on three miles of obsolete train tracks, has started construction. 

The Dupont Underground is a distinctive attraction, and the only gallery in such a setting in the U.S. (There are parallels in Germany). As aboveground real estate in the District becomes prohibitively expensive, a cultural space that can’t easily be repositioned for profit would hold singular public value—if only it could find some security.