Images of America: Dupont Circle

How Much Do You Really Know About Your Neighborhood?

By Paul Kelsey Williams
Arcadia Publishing, paper, $18.99

Reviewed for the InTowner, October 2000
by Michael K. Wilkinson

With eight years of experience researching and writing about the history of individual homes throughout Washington, DC (with an emphasis on the neighborhoods served by this newspaper), you would think Paul Kelsey Williams would have an astoundingly deep knowledge of our neighborhoods--and he does. However, even an expert the caliber of Williams uncovers new factoids and images with every new dive into the depths of city and federal libraries, historical societies and preservation leagues, often to his surprise and delight.

Williams has just completed perhaps the most fascinating knowledge-building project of his career. In a book being published in October,2000, the local historian has assembled a richly dense narrative and pictorial description of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, comprising the most comprehensive architectural, developmental and social survey about a single District neighborhood perhaps ever published.

Though a fairly quick read, you will be amazed at how much you learn by reading this richly illustrated edition, one in a series on city neighborhoods published by Arcadia Publishing of South Carolina.

The richness of the history outlined in this book comes not only in the pictures and descriptions of cityscapes, buildings and periods of development, but also in equal treatment of the personalities behind the Circle: the benefactors, politicos, architects and builders, and prominent residents through the years.

Did you know? The cellar at 1500 New Hampshire Avenue was once stocked by its private owner with $300,000 worth of fine wines and liquors, in anticipation of the prohibition era.

Also, a dressing room in the building now occupied by the Embassy of Indonesia was the scene of negotiations on the final private-party sale of the Hope Diamond, before it was acquired by the Smithsonian.

No stone is left unturned in this book: even infrastructure projects, little appreciated but most critical to the successful development of an area, get focused attention in Williams' research (drawing principally from photographs and news coverage of the day that often accompanies significant civil works projects). There are fascinating pictures, with detailed substantive annotation, of the construction of bridges, transportation networks, sidewalks and even sewers.

Of particular note is the series of images of the construction of the Connecticut Avenue underpass. Seeing pictures of the Avenue, lined with buildings we recognize today, but without that precipitous center lane, fluorescent-lit dip underground, somehow made the Circle look so simple to navigate. For a period, the fountain was actually removed from the center of Dupont Circle, as construction progressed. To cap off the series, Williams has uncovered a photograph of the first passenger car to traverse the Circle via the underpass, c. 1950. Pictured is a turn-of-the-century era automobile gliding down the hill southbound on Connecticut, carrying a rather large woman who is waving to the crowd with one hand and trying to keep her hat on top of her head with the other hand.

Did you know? Water supply and drainage pipes were installed for a fountain under "Pacific Circle" in 1877, but the pipes went unused for nearly 50 years as, initially, simple landscaping was used to adorn the Circle, followed by the placement of a statue of Admiral Samuel F. Dupont when the Circle was renamed in 1884. It was not until 1922 that the fountain plumbing was actually used, when the statue made way for the now-familiar fountain at the center of Dupont Circle.

Also, the Chastleton, on 16th Street, was initially built at half its current size. Upon completion of the original edifice, the architect was immediately commissioned to draft an exact duplicate of the first half, which was built to the north, completing what at the time was the city's largest apartment building.

If you currently live in or have ever lived in Dupont, you are likely to spot in this book your street, your apartment building, or perhaps a haunting picture of what was there before your building was erected. For sure, you will find yourself saying "wow," "whew," and "amazing" as you flip the pages and come to learn what preceded so many of the structures with which we are so familiar today. Take for example a wood-framed steeple church standing completely alone in a field at 15th and R Streets, c. 1895. Wow. Amazing.