Dupont Circle Fountain

Daniel Chester French


Dupont Circle is among the most culturally complex public spaces in Washington, almost an essay in irony.  It is both an officially-built site for opposition to officialdom and a privately-sponsored landscape for public engagement.

In a city that largely stands for politics in America, Dupont Circle has long played the role of our Washington Square or Hyde Park: the predominant site of popular expression and opposition.   Dupont Circle is close enough to official-powered Washington and its private enablers to be heard there, yet also far enough away to not be on their turf.  It is where protest marches commonly begin or end after touring through enemy lines.  A week never seems to pass without some demonstration: organized or spontaneous, with few or many participants, about issues both domestic and international.  The Circle itself gives its name to the neighborhood, an area resonant, complex and famous enough to be a novel.  Its past few decades of upscaling and yuppification mask a longer history of housing marginalized communities, and—its core value—even more vigorous protests.

But why here?  All of DC is fair game for protest, after all, from the vast expanses of the Mall to the lawns and parks by the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.   But there is something homey, dramatic, enframed (and thus suitable for both police observation and impressive photography) about the space of Dupont Circle, culminating in the fountain at its center.  Perhaps even more, there is something of familiarity to the space of Dupont Circle, and also of play, an essential for any good protest.  In some sense just hanging out there doing nothing, or playing chess, in sight of the office buildings and law firms to the south, as well as their business-dressed minions walking through, is already an act of resistance.

Dupont Circle might be deemed an example of unintended design.  Its location as a crossroads is clearly set in the original design for urban Washington, Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan.  But that spot on the plan had nothing particular designated for it and stayed largely undeveloped for nearly a century.

The circle was created in 1871 and renamed eleven years later for (what else?) a prominent military hero: Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont.  It was originally a lushly planted Victorian garden with walking paths through the space.  At the circle’s center was a statue of the Admiral in uniform, binoculars in hand looking vigilantly over viewer’s heads.  Launt Thompson’s statue is a smaller, even perhaps more approachable image of a Civil War hero than the many gallants on horses who dominate other circles.  But he was also perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the grand planted setting in which he was set. Indeed, while the grounds of many traffic circles kept their heroes honored just by offering nothing else for the viewer to see but a man on a high horse, and so were largely empty of people, the larger Dupont Circle, with its explicit walking paths, rather de-heroized its namesake by bringing him down to earth.  By the early 20thcentury, the statue was ill-tended and came to tilt sharply forward, leading to various jokes about tippling sailors.

But Admiral Du Pont had an advantage unmatched by any of his monumentalized Civil War cohort: a devoted, super-rich, blue-blood family, unsatisfied with the fate of their forbear. The Du Ponts of Delaware owned the nation’s largest chemical/explosive company, then in its heyday.  At the family’s behest, and with them footing the bill, an entirely new scheme was employed on the circle, which opened to the public in 1921.  The new fountain was designed by Daniel Chester French and the entire area redesigned by Henry Bacon.  The same duo was then at work on the Lincoln Memorial (to be dedicated the following year) and the same general principles followed.  Rather than an urban oasis in which to be refreshingly lost, the circle was a point to take in the long perspective of Connecticut Avenue.  This is the same design principle of the Mall and other urban foci, in line with the general project for a new monumental capital. It is the Washington still known colloquially as “the city of magnificent distances.”   Thus while most of Washington’s circles and squares were basically designed once in either 19thor 20thcentury urban principles, Dupont has had the unique means and good fortune to stay stylish.

In the process of its makeover, Dupont’s likeness disappeared, and his life allegorized. The fountain’s wide base names Dupont, but spends at least as many words mentioning that there used to be a government-approved image of him.  The fountain itself is a high, white marble structure from the top of which water falls in sheets.  Behind it are carved in high relief three allegorical figures on the fountain’s circular shaft.  These tall, willowy, sort of Pre-Raphaelite figures are both male and female, representing the sea, stars and wind.  Perhaps appropriately for DC’s original gay neighborhood, the male figure, wind, almost playfully hides his naked body, and even suggests a gender-bending take on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with the billowing sail around him.  None of this is likely to have occurred to the sculptor French, perhaps the leading maker of public sculpture of the time , but it embodies how new audiences can bring subversive meanings, a fundamental way that monuments continue to engage.  Opposition is even a way of looking.