The oblong site that would become Dupont Circle first appeared on the 1791 plan for the District of Columbia by Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Andrew Ellicott. The baroque-influenced plan was characterized by an orthogonal street grid overlaid with broad avenues diagonally radiating out of squares and circles set aside for commemoration or open space. Although unnamed at that time, Dupont Circle was one of the largest.
Dupont Circle remained a relatively unimproved site, save for grading and the installation of enclosures until just after the Civil War, when the adjacent neighborhood began to attract a measure of affluent residential building, and the first trees were planted and gravel paths laid down. Pacific Circle, as Dupont Circle was first known, has had three distinct designs phases, each a reflection of both then-contemporary architectural styles and the character and context of the urban residential neighborhood.
The first, and earliest documented, was an 1876 design showing two circular paths connected by curving, semicircular gravel walks in a pinwheel pattern. The first seven trees, transplanted from the Ellipse, were planted in 1867 and at the time of this design maintenance had been regularly established, with minor improvements made until the early 1880s.
By the 1880s, the neighborhood around the circle had become Washington’s most prosperous, though many of the mansions and row houses were built by private and diplomatic sector figures from outside Washington. During the period after the Civil War, Alexander Shepherd, head of the Board of Works and then territorial governor of the city, had instituted a program of public works and infrastructure improvements that undergirded the growth of the Dupont Circle neighborhood and the city generally.
In 1882, an Act of Congress renamed Pacific Circle in honor of Union Navy Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, spurring the second phase of the circle’s landscape design. In addition to the change of name, Congress also authorized a bronze statue of Admiral Du Pont to be designed by sculptor Launt Thompson. The bronze sculpture, mounted on a granite base, was dedicated in 1884. The circle at this time had some 850 ornamental trees and shrubs, as well as flowerbeds, lamp posts, drinking fountains, and over fifty benches, arranged in an asymmetrical way as was the popular fashion for American Victorian parks and gardens of that time. An adjacent triangle-shaped piece of land known as Reservation 59 received its first improvements during this period.
The circle enjoyed great popularity over the next forty years as the neighborhood grew and flourished. A second circular walk was installed in 1914, twenty feet within the circle’s outer perimeter, and several benches were removed to alleviate some of the congestion from increased usage. Intensifying use had also taken its toll on the bronze statue of Admiral Du Pont, and the Du Pont family proposed a new memorial fountain for which they would pay all costs of design, construction, and installation. Following recommendations of the McMillan Commission, the recently established U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved a plan for a white marble fountain by sculptor Daniel Chester French, and selected architect Henry A. Bacon to execute the design. A water shortage in 1919 necessitated a pump be constructed to recirculate the water in the fountain. The completed fountain was dedicated in 1921.
Unlike many earlier memorials to military and political figures elsewhere in Washington, the Dupont Memorial Fountain is allegorical, with figures and symbols representing the “arts of the sea”—sun, wind, and stars. The figures are arranged in a tripartite design around the fountain’s central cylinder, which supports a small bowl that overflows water into a wide pool. A new design that reflected the influence of the City Beautiful movement was prepared at the time of the fountain’s dedication by landscape architect Irving W. Payne of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, but it was not constructed.
In the early 1930s, the circle underwent several significant changes. A third and final landscape design, likely drawn from the 1921 Payne Plan, was implemented. The City Beautiful principles that were characteristic of the McMillan Commission Plan for Washington were in evidence in the alignment of the paths with the broad, L’Enfant-era avenues that radiated from the circle, and the consequent urban vistas this created. Two extant circular rings and a new central circular plaza were connected by ten radial walks that flared slightly at the outer ring. Four of the walks were on axis with the center of New Hampshire Avenue and 19th Street, while the remaining six were aligned with the sidewalks of P Street and Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues. The assumption of management by the National Park Service in 1934 continues to the present day.
After World War II, the neighborhood and the rest of the city began to decline in population. Dupont Circle was the frequent subject of troublesome vandalism and other nuisance crimes and complaints, and a number of defensive design changes were implemented and then removed, including a ring of firethorn bushes and various kinds of fencing. Increasing vehicular traffic had produced proposals for an underpass as early as the 1930s, but work did not begin until after the war. The construction for a streetcar underpass was completed in 1951, but it closed after only eleven years.
The streetcar construction required the statue be removed, affording an opportunity to redesign the circle and raise the pedestal of the statue by one foot for better viewing and protection from ill-mannered hands. The walks were reduced from ten to six, and those remaining were realigned with the avenues. Various proposals to reopen the tunnels as a food court (1994) and a cultural destination (2014) have had various degrees of success.
It is worth noting that, since at least the 1960s and likely earlier, Dupont Circle has had an important role as civic space for political and social groups that were not welcome in other public spaces of the city. The counterculture and civil rights activists of the 1960s, the appropriation of the circle by the gay community, and later the nascent punk and hardcore scene in the 1980s have not always been kind to the landscape, but their role should be acknowledged in the cultural landscape of the park. In particular, the gay community became an important part of the history of this urban community and the neighborhood is considered a historic locale in the development of American gay identity.
With the recent return of prosperity to the neighborhood and the city, as well as regular maintenance and improvements by the National Park Service, Dupont Circle retains much of its historic cultural vitality.
Barthold, Elizabeth. “Dupont Circle (Reservation Number 60) (Pacific Circle),” District of Columbia. Historic American Buildings Survey, 1993. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS DC-WASH 595).
Cultural Landscapes Inventory. “Dupont Circle.” National Mall and Memorial Parks-L’Enfant Plan Reservations. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 2013.
Helwig, Anne H., and Ikrzamne Ganschinietz, “Dupont Circle Historic District,” District of Columbia. National Register of Historic Places Inventory: Nomination Form, 1978. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Olszewski, George J. Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. Washington: Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, National Park Service, 1967.
Scott, Pamela, and Antoinette J. Lee. “DuPont Circle.” In Buildings of the United States: District of Columbia, 317-319. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.