Eastern Market, Corner Store And Cornerstone

Adolf Cluss's market building was local, not federal.
Adolf Cluss's market building was local, not federal. (By Charles Del Vecchio -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Healthy cities help people negotiate between the selfish and the collective, the private and the public. The plan of Washington, D.C., was particularly clever in its orchestration of these two poles of our lives. The avenues channel commerce and people; the quiet grid of streets allows an almost suburban detachment, something quieter and more humane in scale. And the proximity of the two creates the balance of an urban life that allows one to be in the mix, or out of it, as per your own individual need of the moment.

Yesterday's horrendous damage to the 1873 Eastern Market building on Capitol Hill is a dynamic loss -- a loss to the flow of space, the habits of people, the patterns of community. It is also an architectural loss, though there is hope that Adolf Cluss's gravely eloquent brick building at Seventh and C streets SE can be returned to something like its former self. The sense among the people who gathered yesterday across the street from the building, gutted so badly that birds can now fly in through the front windows and out the back ones, was a profound concern that while the building may come back, its dynamic qualities may not.

Although the market was built long after Pierre L'Enfant laid out his plan for the city, its gutting is a blow to his essential vision: Washington as a collection of nodes, magnetic in their power to bring people out of doors, even across state lines, to enjoy the throng of urban existence. It was, for neighborhood residents, a place to buy coffee, tortillas, cheese, flowers and, most of all, to be among people. It is the name of a Metro stop, the best beacon to get taxi drivers close to a neighborhood that was often a blur in their mental maps -- and it connoted a lifestyle of sorts, less pretentious than Northwest, more urban than the suburbs, a between place.

Homeownership seems, at first, an essentially selfish act. It is private property, to which one lays claim financially, legally and, over time, aesthetically and emotionally. But the curious thing about homeownership -- in a city, at least -- is how deeply it connects you to others. And yet the power of successful public space is that after feeling the collective loss, you feel it again all the more personally. That was my market, my cheese vendor, my path for a weekend stroll. A successful neighborhood -- and Cluss's building defined a successful neighborhood -- is about a constant interplay of selfish and communal feelings.

A successful city is a collection of successful neighborhoods, and the popularity of Cluss's market building means the loss isn't just to the residents of Eastern Market. The economic vibrancy of the neighborhood has been due, in part, to the power of Cluss's market to attract people from across the region. It broke all the usual rules of contemporary shopping: There were no aisles, no chutes to feed the crowd through a phalanx of cash registers, no carefully calculated funneling of customers for the maximum economic squeeze. There was, instead, a vibrant mob crowded into a single, bustling, wonderfully disorganized space. It was a brick box that forced you into proximity with strangers, a drug powerful enough to attract suburbanites in number.

Cluss was also the architect of the Arts and Industries Building, a Victorian gem on the Mall that is suffering from neglect by its owner, the Smithsonian Institution. He built the Franklin School on Franklin Square, from which Alexander Graham Bell sent his first wireless message, via his newly invented "photophone." Cluss was born in Germany, and he came to America rich in the spirit of Karl Marx and the working man. His buildings borrowed from the many architectural revival currents floating around in the 19th century, and they could be wildly fanciful. His Central Market, at least as impressive as Eastern Market, stood where the National Archives is today; like too many of Cluss's buildings, it was torn down.

The major buildings that remain from an architect who was among the most influential in the history of Washington are a mix of the brick and the industrial. His style might have become the dominant Washington style if the city had retained more of an independent identity from its federal purpose. Instead, the neoclassical vision took over, the preferred look for a country trying to define itself as an imperial power.

Which is what makes buildings such as Eastern Market essential to retain, to rebuild and repair and reinvigorate. Cluss is local. Set amid the white pillars and generic facades of so many Washington buildings, his work almost seems rustic. While a federal building makes manifest the power of design and balance, Cluss's structures bear the more tangible imprint of craftsmanship, the mark of the hand laying the individual brick. They are dour but beautiful for their solidity and gravity. The federal city is filled with people who come and go; Cluss's city, hidden here and there mostly off the major axes of the tour buses, is for those who stay and dwell.

When the campanile in Venice fell down in 1902, the Venetians vowed to rebuild the tower "dov'era e com'era" -- "where it was, and as it was" -- which is what they said when their beautiful La Fenice opera house burned down in 1996. They rebuilt both, and today few tourists would know the difference without the prompting of a guidebook.

Rebuilding Eastern Market will be particularly difficult because it was a social space. It reeked of a century of sour milk and fish and fried food. The danger is that it will be closed so long that the vendors leave and the crowds dry up and with a new grocery store opening just down Pennsylvania Avenue, suburban habits of car shopping will supplant the local habit of walking home with too many bags cutting into the flesh of your fingers.

The temptation to ruin it will be strong. It could be cleaner, filled with new vendors, managed more corporately to supply a more predictable stream of yuppie foodstuffs. The test for the neighborhood, and for the city, will be to resist anything that changes the social character of the building as it was on any given Saturday afternoon. The challenge will be to rebuild where it was, as it was, and what it felt like.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company