24 Aug 2009

Lost Capitol Hill: Eastern Branch Market

Detail of L'Enfant's plan, showing at top the two squares reserved for the market. (LOC)

Detail of L'Enfant plan (LOC)

With the reopening of Eastern Market, it seems only right to look at the pre-history of what is again the center of our neighborhood. Long before Cluss built his masterpiece, there was another market, one which L’Enfant had planned into his earliest drawings of Washington DC: Eastern Branch Market.

In 1791, it made sense to have the market near water, and since the Navy Yard was the largest employer in the area, the squares surrounded by 5th, 7th, I, and K Streets were chosen for the market. In order to improve the farmer’s access to the market, a canal was to be built from the Eastern Branch (now Anacostia River) to the market.

At least, that was L’Enfant’s plan. Follow me over the jump for the reality.

1928 drawing by Elbert Peets of what the market would have looked like, had L'Enfant's plan been followed rigorously.

1928 drawing by Elbert Peets of what the market would have looked like, had L'Enfant's plan been followed rigorously.

Shortly after the United States government moved to the new federal city, plans were drawn up to implement L’Enfant’s ideas about markets: Eastern Branch Market was to be built right where it was supposed to be built. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the canal that had been proposed, but since the river cut into the city at that point, there was still a way for produce to reach the new market.

On August 29, 1806, the Daily National Intelligencer proclaimed that the new market was to be opened the following Monday. After this, information becomes scarce. Guides to the city as well as City Directories from the mid-19th Century indicate that there was indeed a market held three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and that butchers, butter dealers, as well as provision dealers did their trade there. No picture, however, exists of the market; the closest is a picture drawn in 1928 of what the market would have looked like had L’Enfant’s plan actually been followed.

The reality, discovered through excavations around 2000, when the site was to be used for additional Marine Barrack housing, show a much smaller building in the shape of an inverted U that covers only a small portion of one of the two city squares originally reserved for market purposes. The excavation also uncovered old brick flooring, as well as stone foundations.

The Civil War was not kind to the market, and by 1873, it was considered a ‘disgraceful shed.’ By then, of course, Adolph Cluss had built the new Eastern Market, in a location much more amenable to the city’s inhabitants, as well as – now – easily accessible to the farmers who were bringing in their produce.

Nothing today remains of the old market, nor its connection to the river. The piece of the Anacostia extending to the market was filled in and now houses parts of the Navy Yard.

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