A Market That's Up
Fire-Ravaged Landmark Of Capitol Hill Was 'Crying for Help.' With Reconstruction, It's Ready to Welcome Customers Old and New.

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

The interior is painted a dark, salmon pink, just as it was when the place was built in 1873. Sunlight glows from the skylights. And Juan Jose Canales, one of the mainstay vendors at Eastern Market, has added seafood sausage and tuna prosciutto to his impressive range of meats, "so we have something new on this day."

Eastern Market will have a lot of new touches Friday, when it reopens more than two years after a blaze that stunned devotees of the venerated Capitol Hill food hall.

The $22 million rebuilding project has created a market that this generation has never seen. For years before the April 30, 2007, fire, the place was in disrepair. Now it is more structurally sound and truer to its magnificent past.

All of the dozen or so vendors are returning to their familiar spots to sell food, flowers, crafts and other goods in a market that blends old and new. The window styles, color schemes and architectural details come from the Victorian age.

Workers chipped away at the charred walls and through more than a century of paint to find the first color to grace the walls -- salmon, according to H. Michael Hill at Quinn Evans Architects, which is doing the renovation.

The architects went back to records from 1914 at the National Archives to make sure they had historically accurate lampposts and 1882 photos at the Library of Congress to ensure that the arches and windows were the right kind.

Reflecting its importance as a community gathering place, the building will include a movable stage, walls to display art and photo galleries, even a dance floor.

There is an elaborate sprinkler system, windows with UVA protection and ample restrooms -- instead of one.

The second floor, where the one nasty restroom festered and clay was thrown on pottery wheels, now accommodates an enormous heating and air-conditioning system.

The basement, which was a dank, dark place of limp holiday decorations and raw sewage, is now a bright, lively space. The original brick arches supporting the ground floor of the market and cast-iron posts with decorative flourishes are clean and well lighted. This will be the new home of the pottery studio.

On top of these changes, the District made improvements to sidewalks, curbs, utilities and lighting.

The day after the devastating fire, foodies from all over came to mourn the landmark, fondly remembering the pumpkin ravioli, reminiscing about plates of the buckwheat blueberry pancakes known as "bluebucks" and wondering whether anyone would ever again serve samples of manchego cheese.

Canales said he was afraid for "about four hours" that the market would not reopen. But after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) held a news conference at the scene, and promised the restoration, his hope was galvanized.

Customers and vendors said the changes were long overdue. The market, at Seventh and C streets SE, was one of a network of public markets throughout Washington. Over the years, shiny supermarkets that offered carts, air conditioning and one-stop shopping ended the food hall habit across the city. Center Market and Western Market were devoured by development.

Although it survived, Eastern Market weathered and aged, taking on a Blanche DuBois beauty that worried those who looked too closely. They raised complaints about wiring and other issues, even warning about the potential for fire.

"I've been coming here 60 years, honey. Ever since my mother brought me here as a small child. And I'll tell you, it was looking terrible," said Bernice May Smith, 64. "There were rats up there in the bathroom. It was dirty, falling apart."

Canales, who opened his deli 26 years ago, said the building was "crying for help."

"I saw a big crack in one end, at the south corner. I looked close at it and always wondered, 'Oh my God, what if the building collapses? That's all of my family working here,' " Canales, 58, said.

Indeed, two of Canales's brothers followed him into the business, opening their own stalls in the food hall -- a butchery and an assortment of fresh pasta stuffed with sweet potato, pecan, lobster and porcini. They opened the Tortilla Cafe across the street, introducing the neighborhood to shredded pork and cheese pupusas.

There are now Canales children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews whose livelihoods are rooted in Eastern Market.

The cause of the fire is still undetermined, said D.C. Fire and Emergency Services spokesman Alan Etter. Immediately after the blaze, D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said he was "90 percent" certain that electrical problems were to blame. But later that year, federal investigations ruled out electrical problems as the cause.

While the debate continues, the neighborhood is celebrating the return of the market. Vendors are making the transition from temporary quarters established soon after the blaze.

Whitney Paxson, who grew up down the street from the market, felt so attached to the place that she went there, from her home in Pennsylvania, after the fire.

"It was sad, but there was also this energy, all these people here. You realized how many people love this place," said Paxson, 33, who worked at the market when she was 7, weighing and bagging produce, from apples to zucchini, for the farmers with stands outside.

Paxson, who has moved back to the Washington area, returned to the market last week to check on progress. Giant deli cases rolled by her 4-year-old son and a metal sink clanked past her 21-month-old daughter as workers moved equipment into the building.

She and the rest of the market's faithful are anxiously awaiting the rebirth. Fenty plans a ribbon-cutting Friday, followed by a community celebration Saturday.

"It looks nice now," said Leah Silverman, 6, who knows a lot about Eastern Market.

Leah was in a class of kindergartners at School-Within-a-School at Peabody on Capitol Hill that was deep into a year-long study of Eastern Market when the fire gave their lesson plan a twist.

"I was really sad," Leah said.

After mourning the old market with her class two years ago, she visited the new market with her family last week, peering into the hall where they will resume their yogurt cheese and black-and-white cookie tradition.

Neighborhood resident Melodee Hanes passed them, smiling as a parade of Market Lunch barstools rolled on carts across the street and back into their old formation, ready to bring people closer to their crab cakes and bluebucks.

"I knew this place would be great," said Hanes, a lawyer from Montana who got a job with the Department of Justice this year and chose to settle next to the loud and dusty construction site. Some people told her that her new home would be close to something really special.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company