|Kann's Busy Corner in 1907 (author's collection).|
|Kann's circa 1935 (Source: Library of Congress).|
|Advertisement from The Washington Times, Sept. 30, 1897.|
|(Source: Author's collection.)|
|Postcard view of Kann's from the 1920s (Author's collection).|
|Kann's Virginia Square store in 1953 (Photo by Lionel Freedman, courtesy © Lionel Freedman Archives via DC Public Library).|
The Virginia Square store offered every efficiency a mid-century shopper could want, including parking for 1,000 cars and large, unobstructed shopping floors color-coded to indicate the type of merchandise on display. Items could be purchased one by one and dropped off at a collecting center on each floor that would send them down to the parking level via conveyor belt for speedy delivery to one’s car. On a more eccentric level, a large glassed-in cage on the second floor housed four squirrel monkeys, imported from Brazil, that were destined to leave a vivid impression on many a young Kann’s shopper. Downstairs in the basement was the store restaurant, called the “Kannteen.”
The main store downtown had for many years used nearby warehouses for storage, and, in a foretaste of future tragedy, these warehouses suffered significant damage in two major fires, in 1947 and 1953. After the second fire, which was set by a young warehouse employee upset with his supervisor, the District coincidentally decided to close a nearby fire department facility that housed a rescue squad. Kann’s officials pleaded with the city to keep the firehouse open and put fire-fighting equipment in it. A Kann’s attorney was quoted as saying “Our viewpoint is that one trained fireman at that station house is 100 times as valuable as the best equipment a few minutes away. This is an area of old buildings, and after the fire Saturday, we think it is particularly to our interest to have added protection.” District officials were unmoved, and the station was closed.
Kann’s then began the slow decline that permeated downtown businesses in this era. Kann’s officials decided in 1959 to try to boost the main store's appeal by “modernizing” it, hiding its assortment of old buildings behind uniform, grey, anodized-aluminum sheeting. The result, duly approved by the Fine Arts Commission, was a giant featureless box that would ultimately doom the historic buildings hidden behind it. However modern and up-to-date it may have seemed when completed in 1961, the box’s appeal did not last long.
|The remodeled Kann's, decorated for Christmas, 1969. (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post)|
As early as 1964, when Kann’s was still in business, the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue had recommended tearing down the building and everything else in a broad triangular area north of Pennsylvania Avenue to be replaced by an array of sterile-looking office blocks. The council’s plan was thankfully never implemented, and the following year the Department of the Interior designated this area as the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic Site, which provided some protection to the Kann's building. A succeeding group, the President's Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, refined the official plans for the avenue. That commission's successor, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, finally developed a revised plan that was approved by Congress in 1975. The revised plan noted that its predecessor had been criticized for “sterility and over-monumentality” but nevertheless retained the idea of leveling a large “superblock” of properties, including the Kann’s building, and replacing them with a new residential complex of townhouses, apartments, and shops. An open square was also to be created in the southern part of the Market Space area, which would be in keeping with the original L'Enfant plan for the city.
|The former Kann's store in 1978 (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post)|
In January 1979, as it prepared to demolish the building, the PADC instructed its contractor to remove a portion of the aluminum covering to determine whether any of the old façades underneath were still intact enough to be removed and possibly reused on other new buildings nearby. As had been the case with the old Greyhound Terminal on New York Avenue, removing the metal covering revealed that the old façades were remarkably intact. Don’t Tear It Down, the predecessor of the D.C. Preservation League, became involved in efforts to convince PADC to save and restore the entire old complex of buildings. A developer proposed turning the old buildings into residential units—an idea that today would seem like a no-brainer for the distinctive and irreplaceable structures.
PADC dug in its heels, saying it had to stick to its congressionally approved plan to tear down Kann’s and build the planned superblock of new buildings. At the request of Congress, the U.S. General Accounting Office reviewed PADC’s plans and actions and found that there was nothing improper or illegal about them.
|On the scene after the fire was extinguished (Source: Archives of the D.C. Preservation League).|
|The ruins after demolition had begun, 8th Street corner (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).|
|The ruins after demolition had begun, seen from 7th Street (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).|
|Demolition nears completion. (Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post)|
|The eastern Market Square building now stands on the former Kann's site (photo by the author).|