The immediate area surrounding DC’s Union Market has witnessed a remarkable surge in population, activity, and energy over the last five years. I deliberately use the word “surge” instead of “resurgence”, because the “re-“ prefix is a misnomer; it implies that the action to which it appends (the “surge”) has happened a second time. But for Union Market, that’s just not the case. This surge is new and has no precedent. Union Market never had people living nearby; now it does. Long a seedy wholesaling commercial hub capitalizing on its proximity both to the city’s biggest rail yard as well as busy New York Avenue NW (U.S. Highway 50), it has functioned since the early 1930s as a convenient node, central within the District’s boundaries, for the delivery of meats, produce, and wholesale dry goods to support both local restaurateurs and consumers in the form of a farmers market. It was a backstage area to the fancy restaurants and catering companies operating in and around the three branches of the federal government, all less than three miles away. But nobody was supposed to hang in and around the Union Market area outside of the people who worked there; it was dirty, smelly, and, like so many high-density parts of DC, infested with rats. Yet those logistical workers needed a place to eat during their lunch break, so a few telltale restaurants served them over the decades when Union Market was “no-man’s land”. For example, A. Litteri rearrange some of the wholesale Italian goods into a grocer and delicatessen, thriving as a sandwich shop in the area since 1926—a real DC institution. Meanwhile, on the same Morse Street in Union Market, another institution suffered a different fate—one with a green-shingled roof.
It would be hard to find a word more clichéd yet also more apt to describe this little structure other than “cute”. And that’s entirely the point. The the green-shingled roof is pitched enough to give the illusion of a second floor, but a side view suggests otherwise. It’s probably as decorative and non-functional as the red-shingled roof of a Pizza Hut, and, at one time, the aesthetic certainly served the same branding function. This mock-Tudor cottage is one of the last vestiges of Little Tavern, a chain of hamburger fast-food restaurants founded in Louisville in the 1920s, though it achieved its greatest success in the Washington DC/Baltimore area, where its founder opened locations less than a year after the Louisville pilot. Lacking room for any more than a few tables, Little Tavern’s primary business was carryout; an early motto was “buy ‘em by the bag”. Since a bag served as the unit of burger measurement, and the burgers come in bulk, it’s appropriate to compare Little Tavern to such mass-produced mini-burger joints as White Castle or Krystal, both of which also opened in about the same time period and flourish to this day. Little Tavern burgers were small, square, topped with diced onions and Montreal steak seasoning.
In other words, sliders. Though not all Little Taverns adopted the pitched green roof motif, enough did that it became a signature of the brand, much like White Castle deployed an unusually literal approach to its architecture. (Some of the earliest Louisville prototypes of Little Tavern even featured battlements akin to White Castle; it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Little Tavern had to back away due to copyright violations.) Over time, Little Tavern’s leadership apparently decided that the Tudor architecture appeared homey enough to evoke a neighborhood tavern or watering hole, and it certainly isn’t big. At its peak in the 1950s, about 50 Little Tavern locations operated in and around the nation’s capital. Harry Duncan, the original Louisville developer, sold the chain in 1981, and while the Fuddruckers company purchased it shortly thereafter, it found little success. Employees bought out the declining number of restaurants, operating them as independent establishments or converting them to a new restaurant that used the Montreal steak seasoning—the Little Tavern’s distinguishing flair.
The Little Tavern chain endured a long, slow decline to obscurity; while most locations closed in the 1990s, a few continued as owner-operated locations well into the 21st century. The final Little Tavern closed its doors in 2008, and it likely would have devolved to a footnote in the region’s history if it weren’t for the survivability of those little Tudor cottages with their pitched green-shingled roof. Many got demolished, but enough have survived that old-timers from DC or Baltimore know exactly what they signify. The Union Market area in DC hosted one, and while I cannot determine how long ago it stopped slinging sliders, the last tenant for this green painted roof was a Subway. It closed sometime around late 2017. No activity has taken place under that green-shingled roof since then, but its location bespeaks the Union Market’s cataclysmic growth in the last five years. And it’s all about what surrounds this adorable little mock-Tudor cottage.
There it is again: a former Little Tavern dwarfed by its leviathan new neighbor, which envelopes it on two sides, seemingly squeezing it that much further to the corner of the block. It’s a dramatic departure from 2016, when that Subway restaurant operated a rare 24-hour tribute to sandwich artistry, presumably for all the warehouse workers making deliveries several hours before dawn. The combination of sky-high land values, a particularly convenient location, and a newfound fascination for light industrial grit helped transform the noisome squat brick buildings of Union Market into a tres chic destination for young professionals, spawning a bevy of new restaurants, retailers, gyms, and mid-rise apartment buildings that circled the Union Market food hall as the nascent neighborhood district’s entertainment anchor. In many respects, it’s Washington DC’s equivalent to Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and the original logistical operations continue amidst the new nightclubs and condo buildings.
But if things are so trendy in Union Market and land values so expensive, why’d the developer of 550 Morse apartments retain a puny little structure that can barely fit a kitchen? After all, the best way maximize floor-area ratio—especially in a height-restricted city like Washington—is to build out to the lot line as much as possible. While a structure as small as our green-shingled roof isn’t going to stymie nearly as much opportunity as, say, a suburban Fuddruckers prototype, it still squanders a few thousand square feet of gross leasable area. And the juxtaposition looks ridiculous.
A bit like the stubborn home owning protagonist from the movie Up, which alludes to real estate tug-of-war that is far more common than the parodic intent of the movie suggests.
But DC is no stranger to this approach. It’s common enough, in fact, that I’ve blogged about it a few times. Navy Yard has an old-school beauty supply shop wedged between two much newer mammoth multifamily housing developments; just a few blocks away a tiny corner parcel sat undeveloped, resulting in a “carved out” look to the megastructure, similar to the old Little Tavern structure here in Union Market. (The latter “carved out” parcel eventually got developed into a smaller retail unit.) So there’s a precedent for the juxtaposition of buildings with extreme height and massing differences, like this one in Union Market. But what prompted the developers to save this one? Various online chatter on sites like Prince of Petworth (POPville) suggests that the City has placed these little cottages onto the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, though I can find no evidence to confirm it. It would seem like a fatuously bureaucratic move on the City’s part; several green-shingled roofs still survive, and while they’re endearing, they’re basically modular and mass produced, so saving just one should be more than adequate.
Regardless of the protections in place, the developers salvaged this Little Tavern, but they chose an interesting method of integrating it with the construction of their 270-unit apartment building, revealed through the Google Street View from August 2019. Where’s that Little Tavern? For about a year, it was nowhere to be seen. As the developers broke ground on their big project, they lifted the small structure and relocated it off-site, depicted on the aforementioned POPville link. Then, by August 2021, they replaced it. As an added quirk, they reconfigured the interior of the Little Tavern so that it partially connects to the much larger adjacent building.
Beyond that gesture, it’s difficult to discern exactly what the goal is from the Little Tavern. 550 Morse only began leasing about a year ago, and so far, its only tenant is Crooked Run Fermentation.
Is the cottage with the green-shingled roof an alternative entrance? Plans for a future restaurant? Given its size, it’ll never likely host more than a few tables. (Which is probably why Subway made a good tenant; they tend to be unusually small and rarely offer much seating.) But perhaps biggest of all, how does the salvaging of the Little Tavern add value to the development that engulfs it? After all, the developers lost ten floors of viable leasable apartment space—maybe not big enough to comprise a unit on each floor, but at least the opportunity for a 2BR to become a 3BR. Capitalization.
Regardless of its historic interest, the developers and architects of 550 Morse determined this runt of a building was worth keeping. It’s just too distinctive, and it adds texture to the massing fronting both roads at this street corner. Without these 13-foot setbacks, 550 Morse would feel all the more like a big cube, encroaching ever more on the low-slung urbanism that makes the Union Market district popular for restaurants and retail. The green-shingled roof humanizes the hulk, and offers eye-catching color. Too many similarly sized, blocky buildings and it’ll start looking like Penn Quarter, DC’s primary downtown office district. This fragment of 60s pop architecture adds charming nostalgia to the entire undertaking, and its visual distinction may actually make it more valuable for a fashionable micro-tenant than the value incurred for the leasable apartment space ten floors above it. I suspect it’s a matter of time before Little Tavern gets a new tenant, albeit one that doesn’t need a lot of floor space. Perhaps, in the end, it’ll be a restaurant that doesn’t need a big kitchen—food that its customers can procure in a big brown bag.
I wonder what food that might be. Hmm. Sliders are pretty trendy.