25 Sep 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: Eastern Market’s Near Death Experience


I have looked at a number of aspects of Eastern Market since I started writing about Hill history. In fact, my first contribution to this site was to take pictures at its reopening in 2009. However, I’ve never tried to encompass the entire history of it until I was asked to give a talk to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society earlier this year. In doing this research, I researched the nadir of the market, which came in the early 1960s — and the surprising source of its renaissance.

Less than forty years after opening, the market had been expanded, and throughout the First World War, it continued to serve the community well. But, as early as 1929, cracks began appearing. Already that year, the new North Hall —not yet 20 years old at that time—was not being used, and there was some thought of using it as a repair shop for the DC Fire Department.

Over the next years, the situation did not improve. Articles from that time indicate that either the number of sellers had decreased, or the amount charged for rent was increasing.

By the beginning of the 1960s, the market was barely being used for its original purpose. Instead, it briefly housed an art show. More damning, the caption to a picture in the Washington Evening Star on October 21, 1961, indicates that there is now only one meat counter, down from 22 in its heyday. The following year, the market had a book sale in which books – including one donated by President Kennedy – were sold to raise money for the Brent school’s library.

Picture and caption from Washington Evening Star, October 21, 1961 showing Eastern Market. (LOC)

Looking at these news stories from a distance, it would appear that the market was not long for this world. However, rescue came from a surprising source: The Center Market. While the old Central market had been closed in the 1930s to make way for the Archives, there had been another market at the site of the present-day Convention Center is today. Alas, that market was being closed as well. There had been a fair number of vendors still active there, and they were looking for a new place to do business. Eastern Market was perfect, except that the city really wanted to get out of the grocery business entirely. A number of roadblocks were thrown up, including holding up permits to put in the wiring and plumbing necessary to take these new vendors.

Fortunately, the disposessed vendors persisted and, in spite of being told that their leases were only good for two more years, by the end of March, 1963, 15 new stalls were filled at the old market, and Union Meat Company and the Southern Maryland Seafood Co. had new competition.

In the end, inertia won out and the leases were not terminated and, over the next five years, there was a renewed appreciation for what Eastern Market was for the neighborhood, culminating with an application to add the market to the National Registry of Historic Places, which was accepted in 1971. While there continued to be some attempts to turn the market into a food court thereafter, nothing has seriously threatened the market since then.

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