06 Nov 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: The History of Eastern Market

Benjamin F. Graham

Eastern Market will be celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend (get tickets here!), and today, I will try to tie together the many pieces I have written over the years of its history.

It all started, as so much in D.C., with Peter L’Enfant’s plan. Of course, he did not think that the market should be where it is today. Instead, he placed it near the Navy Yard. But planning and reality were two different things, even back then, so the first market on the Hill was near the Capitol.

It was only a few years later, as the Navy Yard became a major operation, that a market was built according to L’Enfant’s wishes.

But that was not good for those still near the Capitol, so a further market was built: In the middle of East Capitol Street. This market only lasted some 30 years, but managed to become a thing of legend.

After the Civil War, as D.C. finally made the upgrades to the infrastructure so needed at the time, a new market, located east of the Capitol and north of the Eastern Branch Market, was planned. Its chief instigator was a local butcher and politician named Joseph Carroll.

To design the market, the city turned to their inspector of buildings, Adolph Cluss. And yes, that sort of thing would not fly today, but was perfectly acceptable back then.

They did not even care that Cluss was, to put it bluntly, a Commie, and good friend of Marx and Engels’s.

Cluss made the rounds of other markets across the country (well, mainly northeast of D.C.) to gather ideas for his new project.

Once the plans were finished, they were turned over to Henry Wingate, a Georgetown-based contractor, for conversion to reality.

Over the next year, the market was built, but then it took some time for the opening, as it appears that some worthy locals were having too much fun using it for other purposes.

For the first 20 years after opening, the market did just fine. It was only after Benjamin F. Graham took over as market master that the place came into its own.

The interior of Eastern Market after the 2007 fire (RSP)

About ten years after Graham took the reins, the ever-increasing waiting list for stalls encouraged the city to expand the market.

Graham did everything to maximize revenue, even turning over his office space to be used as a cafe.

Sadly, shortly after the expansion was completed, Graham died of a kidney infection, so he never saw one of the oddest uses for the market: As a rifle range during the first world war.

It was in the years following the Great War that the fortunes of the market changed. As technology evolved, people’s need for daily shopping decreased, and markets in general went into decline. By the time of the Second World War, there were distinct signs that the market was not long for this world. Fortunately, a few vendors hung on, and managed to keep the market alive even as all other markets were closed.

Being added to the National Registry of History Places gave the market a real boost, but then there was the question of how it should be used. Even as this discussion was raging, a fire broke out and gutted the interior. While this was obviously a stunning loss to the community, it also focused people on what they wanted in a market, and very quickly, a 4-million-dollar renovation became a 22-million-dollar restoration. Though not before Hollywood had their opportunity to blow it up.

Since its reopening in 2009, Eastern Market has remained a centerpiece of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and as we celebrate its 150th anniversary, there is no reason to believe that it will not remain around for another 150 years.

So come down this weekend, and help us celebrate! We are planning on giving tours there again, watch this space for details.

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