Flames Forced Eastern Market to Leap Forward

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour, Mayor Adrian Fenty introduces the new Eastern Market to the community, after it was closed for two years because of a fire. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Preservationists define "demolition by neglect" as the slow decay unto death of a historic building, such as the Old Naval Hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue SE or the famously derelict buildings on the 1700 block of N Street NW. Often it's an unfortunate effect of tight maintenance or nonexistent renovation budgets, but sometimes it is allowed or even encouraged by greedy property owners who hope that a building beyond salvaging can be torn down and replaced with something more lucrative.

Eastern Market, the 1873 landmark that burned in April 2007 and reopened on Friday after extensive repairs, never reached that stage. An exterior renovation project in the 1970s had it looking in reasonably good trim. But on the inside it was in a category all by itself, crying out for intervention, with electrical wiring dating back to at least the 1950s and World War II-era heaters dangling from the ceiling. You might call it a high-functioning basket case, and the fire that gutted the old market's South Hall was a last and final cry for help.

It's a paradox: The near destruction of the market, beloved for its nasty smells, cantankerous cheese vendor and old-fashioned butcher counters, may be the best thing that ever happened to it. Long-standing renovation plans, which would have been surgical and piecemeal, were set aside, and the building was rebuilt from the bones up. Skanky toilets have now been replaced by modern restrooms; old and cloudy plastic windows have been replaced with new glass panes; a skylight has been opened up; and modern heating, cooling and insulation will make the market both more efficient in the cold months and bearable in the dog days. The streetscape outside the market has been redesigned and, if it is closed off to cars as it should be, will become a major pedestrian amenity.

"It was a shell," says Baird Smith of Quinn Evans, the architecture firm that handled the reconstruction. The fire was contained in the South Hall, but the city-funded renovation project has included changes to the small "central" hall (which now contains the restrooms and equipment for the cooling system) and the North Hall, built in 1908 and used for community gatherings.

Quinn Evans, which began working on a more targeted renovation plan in 2005, had finished about 90 percent of the drawings for what would have been a $2.5 million makeover before the fire changed everything. The old renovation plans had been developed with the idea that the market would stay open during construction. But now the South Hall was an empty brick box, and renovations that would have been difficult or impossible before were no-brainers.

Air ducts were moved underground, opening up a much more dramatic view of the ceiling from inside. The concrete floor, which was cracked, was completely replaced; in the process, severe structural problems in the basement arch and beam supports were discovered and removed. The rat-infested, trash-strewn lower level was restored to life, and an old underground restaurant space, accessible from the street, became the new home for the Eastern Market pottery studio.

Outside, the 1970s makeover was upgraded as well, using data from historical photographs. Missing chimneys, which once vented potbelly stoves, were reconstructed with metal to look like the originals, a visual detail that helps balance the building. The cornice line was rebuilt, and the acroteria, fan-shaped ornamental pieces that give architect Adolf Cluss's original design a bit of whimsy, were returned to the building for the first time in decades.

The main entrance of the building, which juts out from the market's eastern side and is capped by a spare pediment, now has a little jazz on top, a marked difference from the rather dour face it used to put to the neighborhood. For admirers of Cluss's work -- which helped define the city's architecture from early in the Civil War until the mid-1870s -- the acroteria and newly rebuilt cornice help connect this building to some of the architect's more flamboyant structures, such as the Smithsonian's sadly empty Arts and Industries Building. These are small details, but they have a remarkable impact.

The fire, of course, caused serious structural damage, and much of the approximately $13 million spent on renovating the building went to repairing damage that never should have happened. Of the 21 rolled iron trusses that support the roof, some were deformed by the heat of the fire, and none was up to contemporary codes. New load-bearing steel trusses were interspersed with eight of the original iron trusses, using an alternating pattern that minimizes visual impact.

There was great concern that the market would be rebuilt in some unrecognizably pristine form, that it would resemble the Disney-style renovation that turned the old Georgetown Market into a high-end grocery store. But the Eastern Market vendors have proved a conservative (even regressive) force, which has helped make the commercial space feel very much the same as it once was. Once you lower your eyes from the appealingly open ceiling space, you see much the same clutter that was always there: Display cases, vegetable stands and walk-in refrigerators are all jostling chockablock, just as they always did. About the only concession to conformity is a new lighting grid above the food stands, which replaces the ad hoc electrical fittings, lights and fans.

Celebrations are in order. But not too much celebration. Fire doesn't usually give buildings a warning. By the time fire does its work, the time for warnings has long passed. Eastern Market was lucky, but the city is filled with other high-functioning basket cases. Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, says "a lot of the city's school buildings" fall into that category, including the Cluss-designed Franklin School. Fire is a horrible way to learn which buildings are crying out for help.

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