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Many Washingtonians are familiar with Eastern Market, a hodgepodge of farmer’s market, prepared food and handmade craft vendors, and flea market. The building at the core of this market was part of a thriving city-wide market system 140 years ago.

During the 1800s, Washington failed to blossom into the thriving federal city George Washington imagined. The rise of railroads lessened the importance of its location at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The portion of the city west of the Potomac retroceded, anticipating the Missouri Compromise ban of the slave trade (but not slavery) in Washington. Hundreds of farms dotted the city and urbanized areas were often dangerous. Today’s Federal Triangle was known as Murder Bay. By the close of the Civil War, the city needed to urbanize or risk the federal government leaving.

Completed in 1873, Eastern Market was one component of the city’s urbanization and revitalization plan. It was designed by Adolph Cluss, whose dozens of public buildings, including the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, made him one of the city’s most important late 19th century architects. Unlike Cluss’s previous Center Market, the largest in the country at the time, Eastern Market was the first city-owned public market. Many others would follow.

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Built on the site of an earlier market by the same name, Eastern Market’s architecture typifies commercial buildings of the era. Cluss designed it to be a utilitarian structure, looking to dominant themes in market design that included natural light, improved ventilation, and easy entrance and exit. Cluss left the market unheated, to protect perishable goods.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Cluss pulled these functional elements together in an Italianate style that easily incorporated the market’s numerous doors and windows. Its symmetrical brick construction is ornamented by a stone cornice, scalloped brick detail beneath the cornice, and a miniature pediment over the main entrance.

Eastern Market gets an addition, but struggles to remain open

The original market was enlarged by Snowden Ashford in 1908, by which time it had become Capitol Hill’s commercial and communal center. Yet the expansion did not help it draw greater business, and the market found itself threatened by the arrival of modern supermarkets, the city’s demolition desire, and fires.

As Washington achieved its goal of urbanization, city markets failed. While even Cluss’s enormous Center Market could not compete with modern grocery stores, Eastern Market did survive when a chain supermarket opened across the street in 1923. However, its expanded North Hall became a garage for fire engines six years later, lacking the business to fill the entire building.

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The market was targeted for closure in 1928, 1943, and 1964 by DC planners, bureaucrats, and the DC health commissioner, respectively. While it survived, by 1962 the market had only two stands left. After the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, even proposals to build a supermarket were abandoned. Some planners suggested a freeway should run through the site.

Despite this regional desire to wipe out the market, the neighborhood supported its commercial focal point. Two decades of competing proposals for the market ended in a 1981 plan for a tourist bazaar. The neighborhood rejected this vision, as well as a subsequent proposal for a mezzanine boutique in the historic interior. Mayor Marion Barry accepted the neighborhood’s outrage, ultimately preserving Eastern Market as a food market.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

​​​​​​Eastern Market is a thriving DC icon today

Today, the market is a destination for residents of Washington, helped along by the ancillary outdoor famer’s, flea, and craft markets. Its latest threat came in the form of a 2007 fire. The $20 million worth of damage was probably caused by an electrical problem, although two DC fire investigators maintained that it was arson.

The rare three alarm fire did not harm anyone, and two years of reconstruction by Robert Silman Associates and Quinn Evans Architects resulted not only in restoration of the intensely damaged structure, but also of the reintroduction of a historic skylight in South Hall that had been hidden. At this time, Mayor Adrian Fenty made 7th Street a pedestrian plaza on the weekends.

Today’s Eastern Market is perhaps even more social than in the 1870s. People from across the metro area visit on weekends to shop in and around the building, the last functional market in Washington. It is the last functional market in what was once the government’s vision of a better capital.