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Dupont Circle

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Dupont Circle is one of seven circles that appear on Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan of the city and one of four that are of large circumference. Although it is located on high ground—a considerable advantage in a metropolitan area plagued with drainage problems—and relatively close to the White House, it remained undeveloped until 1867, when army engineers suggested laying it out along with the contiguous streets. By 1871 Connecticut Avenue was paved to the circle, which was enclosed by a wooden fence and graded, and a landscape plan was prepared. A bronze portrait statue of the Civil War naval hero Adm. Francis S. Dupont was authorized by Congress in 1882, when the circle was officially named. When the Dupont statue was dedicated two years later, there were about 850 ornamental trees and shrubs in the 2.25-acre site; by 1886 fifty-six cast-iron settees were in use by a substantial community. In 1877 water and drainage pipes for a fountain in the center were laid, but they were not utilized until 1922, when the present fountain, the work of the architect Henry Bacon and the sculptor Daniel Chester French, was erected.

A syndicate of California investors developed the area's housing, and by 1873 the first large mansion was built. The British Legation, erected on the site of the present Dupont Circle Building (see DU01) between 1873 and 1876, stimulated development of Dupont Circle as a fashionable residential neighborhood. Unlike Meridian Hill, which had had wealth and the international community thrust upon it, Dupont Circle's natural growth process included an infrastructure of houses and businesses for a varied population. The mansions for the wealthy were built primarily on the avenues, while those for the middle and working classes were dispersed throughout the ten radiating wedges formed by the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire avenues and 19th and P streets. Although only three of the original mansions on the circle survive, the vast majority of those built on Massachusetts Avenue up to and including Sheridan Circle to the west and Scott Circle to the east still exist.

In the 1888 edition of his Picturesque Washington, Joseph West Moore estimated that about 50,000 people, or one-sixth of Washington's total population, were winter residents only. The majority of that contingent was made up of congressmen, their families, and their employees, but a significant and highly visible number were wealthy self-made Americans, some of whom were unacceptable in New York and Philadelphia society. Since the residences of this large community served as party houses for a transient population, their internal organization accommodated frequent entertaining, with large dining rooms, ballrooms, and salons. Often as much, or more, private space was allotted to domestic servants as to the owners themselves. Most of these houses today function as embassies or as headquarters for prestigious organizations, where the public lifestyle of their inhabitants is similar to that of the original occupants.

The major surviving works of the turn-of-the-century Washington firm Hornblower and Marshall are located near Dupont Circle. Unlike the majority of local architects who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Hornblower and Marshall created their own strongly identifiable image, dependent as much on American prototypes as on European ones. Their personal synthesis of pan-European forms, French academic planning, and Richardsonian details was realized in decisively cubic houses built with taut Roman brick skins ornamented with light or red stone trim, carved or plain.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee

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