"Why didn't you write about the old convention hall?" asked Joe Phillips, a former D.C. police officer whose police equipment store might be razed to build a new convention center near Mt. Vernon Square.
No, not the Washington Auditorium, which was built in the 1920s, said Phillips. He meant the old convention hall.
Phillips, who is in his 70s and no fan of the proposal to build a new convention center was talking about the Old Convention Hall Market (later the Center Market) at 5th and K Streets NW, near where he grew up and near the site proposed for the new center. The building, which later became the Wax Museum, still stands, empty.
"No convention hall has ever worked out in the District," he said, reminiscing about the early 1900s.
The Old Convention Hall Market was not quite the same type of convention center as the one proposed, or even as the old Washington Auditorium, a facility with a short life as a civic center and a longer life as a white elephant. But for years it was a major downtown landmark in its own right.
Like the story of the Washington Auditorium, the story of the old Convention Hall Market can be found in the files of the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, with its own small historical ironies.
The hall/market was built in 1874 as the Northern Liberty Market, covering the west side of what was then known as the Savage tract, replacing an orchard, an ice pond and a brook that fed into the pond. Watercress had grown along the banks of the brook.
The building opened in 1875 with a promenade concert among the food stalls for the benefit of the families of those killed or injured working on the building, a massive structure with a 209-ton wrought iron roof. In the early 1890s, part of the building was opened to the public as the Washington Convention Hall, with a seating capacity of 6,000.
The hall was the site of revivals, track meets, the city's first auto show, meetings of Masons, political debates, concerts, dances and plays produced by David Belasco. But that type of activity didn't last.
Somewhere along the way, before 1946, the hall was transformed into a giant bowling area. With 55 or more alleys accounts differ), it was called "the largest one-floor bowling area in the world." More glory for Washington.
In March, 1946, with layers of shellac on the wooden floor feeding the flames, the hall was destroyed by fire. Protected by a thick, reinforced roof, the market below was left mostly intact, although some outside walls had to be torn down and replaced for safety.
The fire was one of the most spectacular Washington had ever seen. More than half the city's fire equipment responded to the five alarms at about 2 a.m. Within an hour after the alarms had sounded, the roof collapsed. Miraculously, no one was injured. Fire officials speculated the fire had started in a room where the pin boys dressed.
The market by then was known as the New Center Market, after the old Center Market at 9th and Constitution was replaced by the Justice Department.
Leo and Norman Bernstein bought the market after the fire for about $500,000 from the Washington Convention Hall Company, continuing its life only as a market. Washingtonians, including Presidents Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, Wilson and Roosevelt, shopped there for fresh scraped horseradish root, pigs heads, muskrats, racoons, possums, herbal remedies and less exotic items.
In 1963, bowing to competition from supermarkets, the Bernsteins closed the market and sold the building. Only 54 of the 110 stalls were occupied by then. Some of the market vendors moved to the Eastern Market. Others simply shut down businesses that had been operated by their families for generations.
For awhile it looked as if the building would have a happy ending. In 1964, with the National Wax Museum ready to move into the site, backers of the wax museum and others made optimistic predictions about how the downtown area (the area city planners predict will be revitalized by the proposed convention center) would be revitalized.
The wax museum had left Foggy Bottom because of the Kennedy Center. The museum's new location should "provide a real shot in the arm for the middle of Washington," said entrepreneur Frank L. Dennis. The location of the museum at the site near Mt. Vernon Square was "preparing to breathe new life into another dead spot - the abandoned Center Market," said The Star.
The Wax Museum which moved from the building in the early 1970s reopened in 1975 in Southwest Washington. Where the market once stood, city planners expect to be built 1,000 housing units, a combination subsidized and non-subsidized housing project. Some of the families who may be displaced by the new convention center are expected to be relocated on the site of the old Convention Hall Market.
Joe Phillips has an idea. Why doesn't the city build the convention center on the old Convention Hall Market/Wax Museum site? "The land is cheaper and most of it is already levelled," he said, echoing points others have raised. The Redevelopment Land Agency owns the land.
Consultants who studied 13 possible locations for the center have an answer. They rejected the site because of the proposed housing development. "Unless there is a change in policy, this site is eliminated from consideration," they said in a report prepared for the city government.