Eastern Market's History of Survival

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Monday's fire won't be the end of Eastern Market. It is just the latest challenge to a place, and a concept, that refuses to die.

Ever since Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the District supplemented public markets in Alexandria and Georgetown with three new ones -- Center, Western and Eastern -- and President Thomas Jefferson approved the first Eastern Market at Seventh and L streets SE in 1805, the market has been a survivor.

Here, based on more than a year of research I have done for a book about the market, are just some of the troubles it has endured over the past two centuries.

The first Eastern Market apparently was damaged by fire, along with the adjacent Navy Yard, during the British invasion of 1814. Half a century later, the Civil War disrupted the market's operations, especially after Southern Maryland suppliers set up shop across the Anacostia River. By 1871, the neglected market was, in the words of a local newspaper, a "disgraceful shed."

The popularity of architect Adolf Cluss's 1873 replacement at Seventh and C streets SE prompted the 1908 North Hall extension, which didn't draw the business that had been anticipated. Worse, the market had to parry attacks on its sanitation by health inspectors in 1907 and 1917.

In 1923, a newfangled chain supermarket opened right across the street. Its stiff competition forced the 1929 closure of the North Hall, which was degraded to a garage for surplus fire engines. The old Washington Times advocated modernizing Eastern Market or closing it, but District government planners already had secretly targeted the whole public market system. Their scheme -- to demolish Western Market in 1928, with Eastern next on their hit list -- ignited street protests.

Thwarted, District bureaucrats in 1943 proposed transforming Eastern Market into a streamlined supermarket. A decade later, a congressional bill envisioned turning a revamped market into a national children's theater.

In 1955, city license chief Cabell Gwathmey criticized the market as uneconomical. Meanwhile, one by one, the other city markets closed. Center Market (where the National Archives is today) was razed in 1931, and Western Market (at 21st and K streets NW) was closed in 1961.

Only Eastern Market endured. Barely.

By 1962, two stands remained, the Glasgow family meat and seafood businesses, but vendors displaced from a large private market that had closed soon filled the void.

In 1964, the D.C. health commissioner declared Eastern Market "a menace to public health" and suggested replacing it with a "huge supermarket center with plenty of parking." When vendors' leases expired in 1965, however, the District dithered. Eastern Market continued without leases but not without further harassment. The "economic development" crew proposed a freeway running through the site. After the 1968 riots, many suburbanites feared shopping anyplace in Southeast.

The Capitol Hill neighborhood, in contrast, stood by Eastern Market. It had grown, almost imperceptibly, to be the heart of the community. Now the market risked being killed with kindness. Neighborhood groups quibbled for decades over competing visions for the market. Parking, economic, preservation and racial issues raged around the now-hot property. Once considered ugly ducklings, Cluss's 1873 South Hall market house with Snowden Ashford's 1908 North Hall addition had morphed into masterpieces oozing charm.

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