More than two centuries ago, when Annapolis was a small seaport town, residents trudged to the Market House at City Dock to pick out seasonal produce, butchers' cuts of meat and the freshest catch from fishermen's nets.
Over the years, as the city turned into a hotbed of tourism, Market House adjusted accordingly. The display cases of steaks and whole chickens are long gone, replaced by 99-cent hot dogs, Baskin-Robbins ice cream and pizza by the slice languishing under heat lamps.
A return to the past could lie in the near future for the unobtrusive, single-story building in the heart of the state capital.
In a move that has riled some Market House vendors, Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson has decided to postpone renewing the nine store owners' leases with the city so officials can re-evaluate use of the building.
Vendors said they are determined to stay, arguing that their sandwiches are essential quick and inexpensive fare for hundreds of tourists and downtown employees.
Residents, still unhappy over losing the last grocery store downtown in 1993, are hoping to change what they feel has become just another fast-food establishment.
"We don't want to have another fast-food court," said Alderman Louise Hammond, a Democrat who represents the downtown area.
"That's not what it's supposed to be. The city code says it's supposed to be a market with a product line serving different groups of people. We don't want everyone selling sandwiches," Hammond said.
Market House began as a small operation near the State House in 1718, said Alecia Parker, Historic Annapolis Foundation archivist. Town officials started the market to serve the steadily growing population, she said. It was moved to the City Dock area in 1728 and, in 1752, back to State Circle, where a storm blew off its roof in 1775.
The market moved to its current site in 1784, when a group of merchants donated the property to the city, stipulating that Annapolis officials would have to return the land if it was used for any other purpose.
The current building was constructed in 1857 and renovated in the 1970s.
Joseph Martin, owner of Mann's Sandwiches, said his store was the only sandwich vendor in Market House when he opened in 1972. The butchers and produce vendors left the building over the years as Annapolitans chose to drive to suburban grocery stores instead of shopping downtown.
Catering to lunch crowd
Today, he said, Market House vendors do a thriving business catering to tourists and downtown employees.
Martin said the vendors surveyed about 2,000 customers who stopped by Market House one summer weekend last year and found that "99.99 percent of them wanted prepared food rather than raw products."
"Nobody was taking pork chops back to the office," said Martin, president of the Market House tenant association.
"Nobody was coming in from Baltimore or Washington to buy crabs that had to be refrigerated. This place has evolved because of the needs of the people, not the wishes of the people. It's evolved because of what people have wanted to purchase."
Martin questioned whether the city could legally terminate vendors' leases, which were supposed to be automatically renewed Jan. 1 next year for five more years unless officials notified them otherwise within 90 days of the deadline.
Sue Lee, manager of Annapolis Fish Market, said she was unsure of the city's intentions, which she said were not adequately outlined in the three-sentence letter of notification dated Oct. 1.
"There was no reason or explanation given," said Lee, whose parents own the store. "I don't know why they need to talk about it. Hopefully, they'll just stick with the lease that they gave us."
`Should be run properly'
The nine vendors pay a total of about $114,000 a year in rent to the city for space in the 5,000-square-foot brick building.
Harvey Poe, a downtown resident who has lobbied city administration to study the use of Market House for at least five years, said many Annapolitans hope officials will bring vendors of fresh meat and vegetables to the building. They also think it could be run better, he said.
"It's supposed to be a safe, visually attractive environment, for example," said Poe. "That's not very well carried out. This is something that the city owns, and it should be run properly."
Johnson said he is working on forming a committee and emphasized that all he wants is to find the best use for Market House.
"It's an important building because it really sets the character for the whole downtown area," Johnson said.
"In some senses, it's the only place where someone can get food in the downtown area without having to pull out a $10 bill."