Although Capitol Hill had hosted a neighborhood market for decades, established by a presidential proclamation by Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s, it wasn’t until 1873 that a dedicated building designed to house the market was erected. At the time, public markets were becoming increasingly important structures, and Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd’s administration was investing heavily in public works, which included the construction of public markets throughout the city. Eastern Market is one of the few of these structures that remain, and the only one that has continuously operated as a market since its original opening.
Designed by the prominent local architect Adolf Cluss, whose other works in DC include the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the Franklin School, Eastern Market benefited from Cluss’ familiarity with public market structures. A year earlier, he had designed Center Market, which—alongside Eastern Market and Western Market, located at 21st and K Streets in Foggy Bottom—fulfilled the 1791 L'Enfant Plan's intention to build three public markets. (Eastern Market is the only one of the three to survive—Center Market was demolished in 1931 to make way for the National Archives, and Western Market was replaced with an office building in 1961.)
In addition to catering to the Capitol Hill neighborhood’s grocery needs, Eastern Market had an important charge: to serve as a model for a more urbanized DC. The Civil War had drawn unwanted attention to the nation’s capital, and many remarked negatively on the city’s rural, pastoral appearance. These comments drove DC’s leaders to try to make a visible statement that the city was modernizing, and grand public structures like Eastern Market were a key strategy. The buildings, as such, had to be not only functional, but also modern and handsome.
The 85 stalls that comprised the original Eastern Market structure each initially rented for $3.75 a month, hosting merchants who provided Capitol Hill with produce, smoked and freshly butchered meats, seafood, poultry, flowers, baked goods, and more. Eastern Market’s merchants mostly lived in the surrounding neighborhood, which meant that their customers were also often their friends and neighbors. These merchants were of diverse backgrounds, both black and white, and many were immigrants from nations like Germany, Italy, and Ireland.
Eastern Market remained an important neighborhood center, and a growing Capitol Hill community drove the construction of additions to the building in 1907 and 1908. Snowden Ashford, a DC native who was behind many of the city’s municipal buildings of the period, designed the addition, which included a large café space.
Grocery store chains posed a major threat to the public market system, one that was especially visible at Eastern Market after the opening of a large chain supermarket four blocks away in the 1920s. However, despite the eventual demolition of its sister structures, Eastern Market has remained in operation since 1873. In 2007, the market suffered significant damage by fire, but it reopened in 2009 after city-funded repairs and renovations and continues operating as a market today.
DC Inventory (Exterior): November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
DC Inventory (Interior): August 21, 1991
National Register: May 27, 1971 (supplemented on March 24, 1995)