Dupont Circle – Washington DC


Located in the “Old City” of Washington, Dupont Circle is an area that Pierre L’Enfant had included in the original plan of the City of Washington.

But, it was the Board of Public Works, under the leadership of Alexander Shepherd that actually developed the neighborhood. They allowed Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart to buy up large chunks of speculative land in the 1870’s. Once only containing a brickyard and slaughterhouse, the area transformed into a fashionable neighborhood nearly overnight.  Mansions were built along Massachusetts Avenue and townhouses constructed throughout the city blocks.

The hallmark of Dupont Circle, that being the Circle itself, was inspired during the time of Shepherd’s work. In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a traffic circle, then known as “Pacific Circle” as specified in L’Enfant’s original plans. On February 25, 1882, an act of Congress altered the name from Pacific Circle to Dupont Circle, to commemorate Samuel Francis Dupont, a rear admiral of the American Civil War. At this time, the Congress also authorized a memorial statue to be commissioned in honor of Dupont’s service to the nation. The statue, sculpted by Launt Thompson, was then erected in 1884 and the Circle landscaped with myriad flowers and trees. Nearly forty years later, in 1921, the Dupont statue was removed and relocated to Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware. A double-tiered, white marble fountain with three classical figure carvings representing the sea, stars and wind replaced the original. Designed by Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon (co-creators of the Lincoln Memorial) they still stand today.

In 1872, a neighbor arrived at Connecticut Avenue and N Street. The British chose the site for their Washington embassy. This led to the area’s credentials as a diplomatic hotspot and soon many embassies were rallying to place their nation’s representatives and residences in the frame. But, Dupont wasn’t just attracting international residents, the neighborhood continued to be of allure to everyday Washingtonians who wished to live in this new, dynamic part of the city. By the late 1880’s the Dupont neighborhood was an affluent and vibrant area of Washington.

Alexander Graham Bell built his city house at 1331 Connecticut Avenue in 1891, which cost a tidy sum of $31,000. Bell integrated new technology and experiments into the design. One such experiment proves to be one of the earliest experiments in household air conditioning. Also, a man by the name of Jacob Fussel built his home at 1514 R Street in 1886. Fussell was the founder and owner of the Fussell Ice Cream Company, which is noted as the first large scale, wholesale ice cream business in the country and had operations in Baltimore, New York, and Washington. He shipped his ice cream in trains packed with ice from these cities, earning himself the title of “Father of the Wholesale Ice Cream Industry.”

What today is known as the residential area of The Dupont Circle Historic District was developed in the last quarter of the 19th century. The historic houses that dominate the area vary between the palatial mansions and three-and-four-story rowhouses of the Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque Revival styles. The unique angles of the avenues, streets and homes in the neighborhood all contribute to the unique flavor of the area. Many of Washington’s prominent figures inhabited these stretches of blocks.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Connecticut Avenue had grown to a burgeoning commercial and office district and the buildings that hosted the shops and firms intertwined with more newly constructed mansions and townhomes. The Patterson House at 15 Dupont Circle (now the site of The Washington Club) is the only surviving mansion of the period on the Circle. Its history and notoriety still make it one of the most important landmarks of the city. Built in 1901, for Robert Patterson (editor of The Chicago Tribune and his wife Nellie, heiress to The Chicago Tribune fortune), the house passed into the hands of their daughter, Cissy, who made it into the hub of Washington’s social circles of the time. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife resided in the home in 1927 while the White House was under renovation. What is notable about Cissy Patterson is that she acquired The Washington Times-Herald and from inside 15 Dupont Circle raged a journalistic war on Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As the area continued to grow in prominence, so too did it grow in administration. By 1933, the National Park Service assumed control of the Dupont traffic circle and added sandboxes for children, which were later removed. The traffic congestion grew equally around the Circle and medians were installed for better traffic control. Due to both the persistent traffic problems and campaigning from the National Park Service, in 1949, an underground streetcar station was constructed, as were traffic tunnels underneath the Circle, meant to alleviate street level car jams.

Dupont Circle hummed along in both economic and social growth during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Then, during the 1970’s, the neighborhood started to take on a more bohemian feel and became popular with artists and the gay and lesbian communities. The area emerged as the center for gay life in Washington and is where the District hosted the first official Gay Pride celebration in 1975. That year, Deacon Maccubbin, who owned Lambda Rising bookstore, organized a one-day community block party on 20th Street. Maccubbin and Lambda Rising hosted the event for the first five years of its existence, until it grew to 10,000 attendees and spread over three blocks.In 1980, The P Street Festival Committee was formed to take over Gay Pride Day and, the next year, the event became known as Gay and Lesbian Pride Day. Today, many of the community’s most historic restaurants, bars and businesses are still located in Dupont Circle.

Living in the Dupont Circle neighborhood is a cornucopia of delights. Right outside the door are a wide and diverse collections of shops, restaurants, cafes and museums. Washington institutions such as Kramer Books and Afterwards, The Phillips Collection, Zorba’s greek cafe, Second Story Books, Bistrot de Coin, The Brookings Institution, the Tabard Inn and Dupont Circle itself are all in the neighborhood. Peppered into the tapestry that is Dupont Circle are various embassies, local firms from veterinarians to dental offices, wine shops and a movie theater.

There is so much to say about this enclave of Washington, one doesn’t know where to begin. Of course, the obvious is the traffic circle, a hub of activity from people gazing to annual snowball fights. The park has seen its share of political rallies – from gay rights to World Bank protests. Avenues and streets shoot out from the Circle like rays from the sun to create a unique area filled with restaurants and shops. Nearly anything can be found in the neighborhood – drug stores, banks, boutiques, hair salons, coffee shops, book stores, food markets – the list goes on and on. It is a part of the city that effortlessly feels somewhat European and possibly what Pierre L’Enfant had in mind when he constructed his original vision of the city.

The beautiful Victorian townhomes and mansions receive a nod as they stand in stately indifference to the the changes that continue to sweep this neighborhood. These homes, have been part of the scene for nearly one hundred and fifty years and are drenched in the local character of Washington, D.C. Residents of these homes, both young and old take part in annual events such as the High Heel race and annual Dupont Circle House Tour. They are proud to live here and that is always on display. One of the greatest aspects of this neighborhood is its sense of community. Neighbors know each other and talk over steaks being grilled on a back patio. Those who walk their dogs meet up and share chitchat.

The convenience of this neighborhood is a natural. Not only is it serviced by two entrances to the Metro, it is physically part of two main traffic arteries of the city: Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. The CVS on the Circle is opened 24/7, 365 days of the year. Most major banks have a branch in or near the area. The neighborhood is loaded with shops and boutiques. And, of course, there are so many restaurants to choose from, it can be hard to decide.

Dupont Circle is one area of the city that thrives at night. While downtown may be a ghost town, Dupont Circle is full of action and energy. The Front Page, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Cobalt Nightclub and Cafe Citron entertain throughout the evening. Starbucks and Teaism are spots for a more laid-back crowd. And, of course, Kramer Books and Afterwards has some of the best nachos in the city and serves them late into the night.

With everything that Dupont Circle has going for it, it is no wonder that it is one of the most popular neighborhoods in the District in which to live, and will be for years to come.

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