Eastern Market a Year Later

Renovations Are Moving Along on Anniversary of Fire

Posted April 29, 2008 at 6:24pm

A year after the fire that gutted the South Hall of Eastern Market, food vendors are working out of a temporary structure known as East Hall and renovation of the historic market building is under way, though some believe outdoor vendors are still looking at a difficult road ahead.

“We’re going through a tough period,” outdoor craft vendor Larry Gallo said.

Gallo, who represents the outdoor vendors on the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, expressed concern that the renovation of the building and the redesign of Seventh Street Southeast will crowd the outdoor merchants.

“The building renovation is going to be going on all year. The streetscape reconstruction looks like it’s going to be going on at least until October, if not later,” Gallo said. “Once again this will be a challenging year at the market.”

Eastern Market, which opened in 1873 and was a part of L’Enfant’s original plan for D.C. caught fire at about 1 a.m. on April 30, 2007, and was burned to a charred shell by morning. Since then, local leaders and members of the community have rallied around the beloved market and its vendors.

“I think things are looking very well,” Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) said. “The mayor and his staff and the private contractors that they hired are doing an excellent job.”

Renovations to the market — including the installation of air conditioning — had been planned even before the fire, and many of those upgrades are now being incorporated as the market is rebuilt.

[IMGCAP(1)]“EMCAC began reviewing the architect’s post renovation plans and realized that there is a silver lining providing now a more thorough restoration instead of the renovation previously planned,” Donna Scheeder, chairwoman of the advisory group, wrote in an e-mail.

Forney Construction has been awarded a contract to finish the renovations on the market. The South Hall roof restoration is nearly complete and a similar restoration on the North Hall has started, as has the process of installing replacement windows.

“There was lots of work done on this to ensure that historic preservation concerns and the need to mitigate the effects of direct sunlight on fresh food were balanced in the decision-making process,” Scheeder wrote.

The work will go beyond the renovations planned before the fire. The market’s floors will be repaired, for instance.

“Because they wanted to restore the market while the merchants were there, they did not initially include the floor,” Wells said. “But since all the merchants are out, it gives us an opportunity to structurally fix the floor.”

Assuming “there are no hitches with the floor, we could open as early as January, but I expect it will be anywhere from January to four months after,” Wells said.

Less than four months after the fire, merchants were able to move into East Hall. The counters, refrigeration space and telephones in the temporary space allow businesses to work in an environment similar to that of South Hall, making the completion of the renovations less urgent.

“It’s a very delicate and complex task to restore a historic building,” Scheeder said in an interview. “Because we have everybody in business, I’m willing to make sure that we take the time to do it right. If people were out of work and out of business, I might say something different than that.”

Since it opened on Aug. 25, East Hall has seen a steady flow of customers, though Gallo said the fire still took a substantial toll on vendors.

“My experience is that it was six months from the fire before the market really was operating in some capacity both indoor and outdoor,” he said. “I think everyone’s business suffered pretty dramatically from the disaster of the fire.”

In the days and weeks following the blaze, community members moved quickly to gather support, establishing online groups to raise money, selling T-shirts and hosting concerts, among other fundraisers.

“It did surprise me how quickly the Capitol Hill [Community] Foundation mobilized to raise significant funds to help the inside businesses,” Wells said.

The CHCF collected about $500,000 from various sources after the fire. “We did not initiate a single fundraiser. We were the recipients of many, many other fundraisers that people took the initiative to do,” President Nicky Cymrot told Roll Call in March.

The money was used to help the displaced merchants of the South Hall continue their business by providing tables, chairs, scales and various refrigeration trucks.

Scheeder said she sees this as one of the main attributes of the Capitol Hill community. “That’s why this neighborhood is such a great neighborhood,” she said, “because it has people in it who, A) get involved and B) care about stuff like that.”