Hours after firefighters cooled the blaze that turned Eastern Market into a charred shell, Washington, D.C., officials and Members of Congress vowed to help rebuild the historic Capitol Hill market — a promise that could mean the fast-tracking of renovations that have been decades in the making.
“I can tell you who’s going to try to get funding — this Congresswoman,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who buys flowers and vegetables at the market almost every Saturday. “I think I have allies on both sides of aisle because it’s a popular place for Members to go.”
The market is a staple in the Southeast neighborhood, drawing life-long D.C.-area residents, tourists and Members into its doors since 1873. Its South Hall — where 14 vendors sold meats, vegetables and meals — caught on fire at about 1 a.m. Monday, blazing for almost three hours before firefighters were able to contain it, said Assistant Fire Chief Lawrence Schultz. Officials believe the fire started in a dumpster but had not determined the cause by press time.
For the past couple of decades, the city has tried to renovate the aging building without much success. The latest batch of plans — calling for air conditioning, new plumbing and structural changes — was to begin at the end of the year, said Stuart Smith, who manages the market. For that work, the City Council had set aside millions of dollars, which will be redirected toward repairs, said Charles Allen, chief of staff to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), whose ward includes Eastern Market.
Vendors are hoping the city will start right away.
“Maybe the one good thing that can come out of today — and I’d never say it was good, because what happened was awful — but maybe one good thing is that now we have a chance to do with the renovations what we couldn’t do without the fire,” said Union Meat Co.’s Bill Glasgow, who has been vending at Eastern Market for 46 years, since he was 13. He estimated he lost $200,000 worth of equipment in the fire but was hoping to get into the building to salvage some knives.
Vendors might be in luck. At a meeting Monday afternoon across the street from the market at Tunnicliff’s Tavern, Wells assured vendors that an outdoor market would be open on Saturday and that the hall would be rebuilt.
“We have the longest-operating market in the city here, and we don’t intend to break that streak,” Wells told the crowd. “We’re rebuilding the market.”
Some of the indoor vendors at the meeting who sell nonperishable items said they would go into the street to sell on Saturday, but others, including Ray Bowers of Fancy Dairy Products, will need a building with refrigeration.
“What am I going to do, bring 500 or 600 pounds of cheddar out there on the street?” he said.
Earlier Monday, residents and vendors had already congregated around Tunnicliff’s. Many just stood staring at the cracked roof and smoke-stained exterior.
“I think it’s just the social hub of the community,” said longtime Hill resident Joe Ragonese. “It’s a place to come on a sunny day.”
Jose Canales, who owns Canales Deli, appeared in good spirits, smiling and reassuring residents as they stopped to ask about his situation. Joan McLaughlin stood next to him, watching as firemen surveyed the building. Canales’ wife used to give McLaughlin’s children free bites of salami, she said — a perk for visiting the market for more than 10 years.
“After the years, you develop a very close friendship with the parents,” Canales said. “When they bring their children, they become part of it.”
And some of those patrons are powerful people. Several Members and their staff live close to Eastern Market, stopping by for lunch at Thomas Glasgow’s Market Lunch or for a bouquet at Issiah and Angela Brunson’s Blue Iris Flowers.
As a monthly visitor to the market, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said it was a unique place with the kind of “fresh-air culture” that you usually see in places like Seattle. He supports some sort of federal funding to preserve the market, although he said the city would have to take the lead. “I think Congress will be sympathetic,” he said.
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, said in an e-mail that he will work with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and Norton to “examine our options and determine what can be done to help.”
“No one wants to see this historic treasure succumb to a fire,” he said.
Fenty and the D.C. Republican Committee also vowed quick action on the city side. In the meantime, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation is organizing a fund for displaced Eastern Market vendors, and information will soon be posted at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org.
It is unclear how fast Congress will act and in what capacity it will able to help. Norton said she hopes to secure some historic preservation funds to preserve the designs on the outside of the building, assuming it can be salvaged.
But she said she is most worried about how to get vendors up and running quickly, especially when the busiest season is just beginning. Streets could be blocked and other outside space could be found, but some vendors — such as those who sell meat — simply can’t function outside.
“It would take real innovation to preserve the market in a functional way,” she said.
And then there are the artists who work in the building. Although the North Hall, built in 1908 and now used to display different art pieces and shows, missed the worst of the fire, potters used the center of the building to throw and bake their pottery. Audrey Jones took her pieces out of the kiln at 11 p.m. Sunday and then left for home just hours before the fire started. Midday Monday, she still didn’t know if enough of her work could be salvaged for two upcoming shows.
“I keep feeling that if I had been there, I could have seen the fire in the dumpster and called someone,” she said.
Still, Jones kept upbeat, playfully pushing the stroller of her 15-month-old granddaughter, Libby Puchalla, through the spraying water of a fire hydrant. Nearby, John Harrod, who oversees the North Hall, sat at a fold-out table next to the caution tape, talking to reporters and neighbors. Everyone will band together, he said.
“The Eastern Market is a family. We feel the South Hall people’s grief,” he said. “We plan to do anything we can.”
Correction: May 2, 2007
The May 1 article “Hill Rallies Around Market” included the incorrect year Eastern Market opened.