- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

It was like a family reunion.

The merchants and customers of Eastern Market were delighted to be back “home” Friday.

After a devastating fire that severely damaged the market April 30, 2007, the historic building finally reopened for business.

The plaza was packed elbow-to-elbow, and celebratory customers, including parents with babies in strollers and school-age children, lined the streets.

More than 200 community members waited in Seventh Street’s North Hall Plaza on Friday morning, welcoming back the 14 permanent indoor merchants of Eastern Market. Some were there as early as 7 a.m. trying to get a sneak peek, while others were attempting to beat out everyone else in getting the freshest produce.

Merchants filled their stands and welcomed back their customers with various fresh items, including produce, meats, flowers and seafood in the South Hall for the first time after 788 days of being temporarily located across the street in the East Hall building. Vibrant colors flooded the open-air market.

“It’s a wonderful historic structure, but also it is the oldest continuously operating market in the city,” Council member for Ward 6 Tommy Wells said. “It’s a great community amenity and gathering place for the neighborhood. It’s really one of our city treasures.”

Smiles spread across the sea of diverse faces, both merchants and community alike. Hugs were exchanged. Laughter was found in every nook and cranny of the pristine, newly restored market.

Many of Friday’s sentiments stem from the memories rooted in the 136-year-old market.

Marian Wilson, a District resident, said she’s seen a lot of changes during her time, but this is one place that remains close to her heart. Her father used to take her all the time to do everyday grocery shopping when she was growing up.

“On weekends, it’s fun to mingle around and buy stuff,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling that they were able to keep this market.”

Even non-District residents visit every once in a while. Eartha Ball, a resident of Waldorf, Md., and formerly of the District, used to visit on weekends with her sisters and children. However, what ultimately kept her coming back were the people, she said.

“It’s the people,” she said. “You have to come here on Saturday when it’s full swing. You have all the vendors outside. It’s exciting.”

Leon Calomiris, owner of Thomas Calomiris & Sons Produce, who has been involved with the market since he was 10 years old, has numerous memories there.

“I used to go hang out behind everybody’s stand. I was the little punk of the market at the time,” he said. “They are like a second family. I’ve grown up there. I see people grow old. I’ve seen people die. I’ve seen them have kids. I’ve seen their kids grow up. I’ve spent my life down there. That’s what I know.”

The market has been a place for several traditions, said Donna Scheeder, chairman of Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC). For example, every Thanksgiving, people get in Mel Inman’s Market Poultry line to purchase their turkeys, she said.

“It doesn’t matter that the line is long because everyone’s chatting and in a good mood,” Ms. Scheeder said.

However, without the actual history of the market and the structure in which it is housed, the community ties to the market might not have been what they are today.

The original building, known as the South Hall, was designed by Adolf Cluss and opened in 1873, said Monte Edwards, chairman of capital improvements for EMCAC. The Center and North halls, designed by Snowdon Ashford, were added in 1908, he said.

Mr. Cluss’ plan had a roof-truss system with high, open ceilings, natural ventilation and a cellar for storage. At the time, this design was innovative for a functional public market, said Mr. Edwards, who is also the secretary for EMCAC.

However, with supermarkets popping up around the District, Eastern Market’s fate became uncertain. It was then threatened not just with closure but demolition, as well. Charles Glasgow Sr., who ran the fish stand, lobbied Congress to keep the market open, said Tom Glasgow, owner of Market Lunch.

“When my Dad took over Eastern Market, there were only a couple stands at the north end,” said Tom Glasgow, Charles’ son. “My Dad came onto the scene, and the market was actually being ready to be torn down. He appeared before Congress and said, ‘Hey, this is a building that’s worth saving.’”

Jim Hodgeson, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, also played a key role in keeping the Market alive, Mr. Edwards said. He showed that it was economically viable, thus keeping the market safe, Mr. Edwards said.

Shortly after, Eastern Market was designated a D.C. Historic Landmark in 1964 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

In 1974, the South Hall was partially restored using federal grant money. However, there was no attention paid to historic detail, Mr. Edwards said.

In 1999, then-Council member for Ward 6 Sharon Ambrose helped enact legislation that defined how Eastern Market would be managed, regulated and improved, Mr. Edwards said.

“It placed the Market under the jurisdiction of the District’s Office of Property Management (OPM), required unified management of the Market and created the EMCAC to advise OPM about the operation, management and capital improvements for the Market,” Mr. Edwards said.

It was EMCAC that initially recommended renovation and repairs to the Market, Mr. Edwards said. Plans were nearly 95 percent complete when the fire occurred in April 2007.

“But the things that were destroyed were the historically inaccurate things like the artificial slate, glazing the windows with plastic and … (the) propping up (of) the floor with steel columns that made the basement inaccessible,” Mr. Edwards said.

On the day of the fire, residents were extremely sad when it burned, said Ms. Scheeder.

“You walked up there, even a few days after, and people were staring at the building with that look on their face that you see at funerals,” Ms. Scheeder said.

Mr. Edwards said the Capitol Hill Community Foundation began raising money almost immediately for emergency expenses such as display tables, scales and refrigerated trucks to maintain vendor operations until a temporary structure was erected.

“Through community contributions and fundraising events that took place throughout the Hill, over $450,000 was raised,” Mr. Edwards said. “The residents of Capitol Hill regard the market as the unofficial town center, and whenever the fate of the market has been in jeopardy, protests, campaigns and creative efforts by civic groups, customers, merchants and the city have saved the day.”

Mr. Glasgow said he never realized how much the market meant to the community until that day.

“It was just a wonderful outpouring of a sense of community,” he said. “It really makes you proud to be thought of as a member of the Capitol Hill community, even though you’re just part of the business community.”

Now, $22 million later from city and federal grant money, the building is newly restored and renovated. Many of the historic elements have been kept intact. However, new features have been added, such as air conditioning, heating, additional public restrooms, a skylight, special tinted glass and a functional basement. With additional funds, the Department of Transportation laid a new cobble street in front of the market on Seventh Street.

“I really actually never imagined it was possible for it to look so good inside,” Tom Glasgow said. “The sad reality and the one thing that is true is that the old Eastern Market that everybody loved is gone … So whether or not it will kind of redevelop its own character, like it once has, only time will tell.”

So from the trials and tribulations of the market to a place that has watched generations of merchants grow old together and interact with a tight-knit, passionate community, Eastern Market could be called a neighborhood family.

“The historic character in there is not just the building, but everything that goes on and the people in there,” Ms. Scheeder said. “It’s one big fabric. If any of that is missing, then there’s a rip.”



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