Soft purple alliums and brillant pink saponarias crammed into shiny metal buckets stand with a casual pride in the dusty windows of Washington's small but thriving wholesale flower market.
But it, like many other of Washington's old downtown businesses, is leaving the now high-priced area of the 1300 block of I Street NW for a new location. In November, an 80-year tradition will end. Gone will be the the predawn hustle to deliver thousands of cut flowers and potted plants to the city's flower shops and street vendor carts from the century-old stores lining the south side of the block.
"We are truly sad about leaving here but we realize our time is over here," said Dennis Paul, whose father opened Paul's Wholesale Florists in 1937. "We are real representatives of the old downtown. We were glad to see the upturn in this neighborhood after all the down years. But it is that very change that has led us to leave here."
In an unusual move, the independent and highly competitive I Street wholesalers have sold their buildings to a developer and are building a complex that will house all four businesses in the northeast Eckington neighborhood near Florida and New York avenues NE, about a mile from the Capitol.
"We just kind of decided to stay together," said George Abdow, 63, owner of McCallum Sauber Florists Inc. at 1314 I St. NW. "We didn't want to fragment and go off in different directions. We've been working together for a long time."
It was an offer from the Gerald D. Hines Interests to purchase all five buildings from the four owners a year ago that led the wholesalers to consider leaving I Street. Neither Hines nor the wholesalers would disclose the selling price. A spokeswoman for Hines said that the planned office building will have 13 stories.
Hines follows other developers who have transformed the Franklin Square neighborhood in the past six years from a deteriorating business district best known for its nude dancers, pornographic bookstores and street prostitutes to a respectable office building area. Since 1981, more than 20 office buildings have sprung up on the blocks surrounding the park, bounded by 13th, 14th, I and K streets NW.
The new flower market, scheduled to be finished in November, will be a one-story, stone-front building on two acres of the old Chessie railroad land in the 1600 block of Eckington Place NE. The cost of the land and building will exceed $6 million, said Paul.
Paul, 47, said the revitalization of the commercial downtown and close-in residential neighborhoods influenced the four owners to stay in the District rather than move to the suburbs.
"Until World War II, our business was 70 percent city and 30 percent suburbs," said Paul. "Then the figures reversed themselves until about five years ago. Now we are finding the majority of our business is back in the city."
Paul, as well as the other owners, expressed regret at leaving I Street because of its location three blocks from the White House and the view of Franklin Park with its trees and fountain.
Arthur Schultz, executive director of the Franklin Square Association, a nonprofit organization representing the businesses in the area, said the wholesale florists will be missed.
"We will miss their ambiance," Schultz said. "They are wonderful neighbors who start their business day way ahead of us. They have added a little color to the neighborhood."
In the meantime, the wholesalers continue to receive and deliver more than 25,000 pounds of cut flowers daily. Because all their business is wholesale, most orders are taken by phone. There are few walk-in florists to see the once-again popular, old-fashioned flowers such as peonies or roses.
But each day Paul and the other florists display buckets of flowers or several lush plants in their store windows adding some bright color to the gray and brown buildings.
"For the few buyers who come to I Street, we like to try to attract them to our store," Paul said. "And we like flowers. We like to think that someone passing by might be inspired to go their florist and buy a bouquet."