There used to be a city-wide system of public marketplaces in D.C. The system was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original design plan for the city, which called for an Eastern, a Central and a Western Market. The markets were intended to supplement existing markets in Georgetown, and across the Potomac River in Alexandria, and provide a steady and orderly supply of goods to urban residents. One of those markets is still in operation today. Known as Eastern Market, it is located at 225 7th Street (MAP) in southeast D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and it was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.
In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for Eastern Market to be set up at 7th and L Streets, near the Washington Navy Yard in southeast D.C. The original market received heavy damage during the British attack of 1814 known as the “Burning of Washington,” when many of the Federal government’s buildings, including the Department of the Treasury Building, the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building were burned. The market was repaired and remained active until a half a century later, when the Civil War caused a disruption in the availability and delivery of supplies. The market resumed normal operations after the war, but continued to struggle and fell into a state of disrepair. By 1871 Eastern Market was nearly abandoned, and was described in a local newspaper account as a “disgraceful shed.”
Eastern Market relocated in 1873 to its present location in a building designed by Adolf Cluss, a German-born American immigrant who became one of the most important architects in the national capitol city by designing dozens of local post-Civil War buildings, among them the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall, Calvary Baptist Church, and the Franklin and Sumner Schools. Enjoying a renewed success as Capitol’s Hill’s population increased in the early 20th century, the market needed to expand. So the city’s Office of Public Works, under architect Snowden Ashford, designed the new addition containing the Center and North Halls in 1908. Eastern Market was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
In the years since, Eastern Market has had more than its share of difficulties, but it has continued to not only persevere, but thrive. In the early 1900’s, the market had to ward off D.C. Health Department, which had made numerous findings of deficiencies with its sanitation. But Eastern Market survived. In the 1920’s a chain supermarket opened right across the street from the market. It cut into its business, but the market survived. Then in the 1940’s, D.C. bureaucrats proposed transforming Eastern Market into a supermarket. And a decade later, a congressional bill envisioned turning a revamped market into a national children’s theater. Neither of these proposals was successful, and the market survived. In the 1950’s, the city license bureau criticized the market as uneconomical, and in 1960’s the D.C. health commissioner declared Eastern Market “a menace to public health.” But the criticisms of the market were no more successful in shutting down Eastern Market than the proposals to change it. Additional challenges could not bring an end to Eastern Market either, such as vendors having to work without leases when the city refused to renew expired leases, a proposal for a freeway to run through the site, and the urban economic downturn after riots in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Eastern Market’s continued existence occurred in 2007, when the building was badly damaged by an early-morning 3-alarm fire. Part of the roof collapsed, and The Washington Post has described the South Hall as “gutted so badly that birds can now fly in through the front windows and out the back ones.” Following the fire the Mayor vowed to rebuild Eastern Market, and even provided a temporary market annex, known as the “East Hall,” across the street on the grounds of Hine Junior High School to be used during the rebuilding process. After two years of reconstruction work, Eastern Market reopened its doors in June of 2009, ending the only extended hiatus in the market’s 210 years of continuous operation.
The other city markets are now long gone. Center Market, where the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Building is today, was razed in 1931. And Western Market, which was located at 21st and K streets in northwest D.C., was closed in 1961. But when the D.C. government closed the other public markets, Charles Glasgow, Sr., who operated two stalls at Eastern Market, suggested that he assume management responsibility for the market. The Eastern Market Corporation was formed and leased the South and Center Halls, now managed by Eastern Market Ventures. So Eastern Market remains open, and continues to host a thriving farmers’ market.
Everything from finest meats, poultry and seafood, to pasta, delicatessen, baked goods and cheeses from around the world are sold from indoor stalls during the week. There is also a lunch counter where you can get a bite to eat while you shop. And on the weekends, recently-harvested produce direct from farms in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are sold outside along the covered sidewalk. Artisans and antiques dealers also sell their goods outside the market on weekends, while live music adds some entertainment, making Eastern Market a popular stop for locals as well as tourists.