The stalls where the lunch crowd lined up for pizza and burgers were bare. Yellow caution tape hung along the counters where groups of schoolchildren used to order gelato and bags of candy. The ovens and fryers and refrigerators were gone.
The historic Market House in downtown Annapolis has been the site of plenty of turmoil in recent years. But nothing prepared customers and the remaining merchants for the sight that greeted them yesterday morning.
Four businesses had vanished overnight.
"Apparently they literally just cut through the pipes to break the equipment free to get it out the door quickly," said Robert O. Schuetz, director of the city's central services administration.
The abrupt closure brought comparisons to the departure of Baltimore's first NFL team.
"In the cover of darkness," said Alderman Richard E. Israel, a Ward 1 Democrat whose district includes Market House.
Schuetz added, "It's jarring of course. One day they're there and the next day they're not."
City officials identified the operator of the businesses as Chip Miller, who until Sunday night leased four stalls at the waterfront site - American Grill, Gourmet Commissary, Sophisticated Sweets and Waterside Pizza.
Miller, who did not respond to messages left on his cell phone voice mail, was served with an eviction notice recently because of nonpayment of rent, according to Neil S. Hyman, an attorney representing Market House Ventures LLC, a subsidiary of Site Realty Group.
Hyman, who did not handle the eviction proceedings but represents Market House Ventures in a pending $6 million lawsuit against the city, said he was unsure why Miller had suddenly decided to vacate the property.
"Well, he moved out today," Hyman said. "It was not because the sheriff showed up to take all their stuff."
The food vendors' skedaddle is the latest blow for a landmark that has seen better times. Likened to Baltimore's municipal markets, the circa-1858 structure at City Dock has long been "the cafeteria of Annapolis," selling food and trinkets to tourists and workers on the go.
In 2003, the city spent $1 million in repairs after Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the historic building. Then city officials evicted all the merchants to make way for an overhaul meant to make it more upscale - only to lurch between problems and controversies.
Market House Ventures filed suit late last year against the city, alleging breach of contract due to loss of revenue during a summer 2006 air-conditioning malfunction that forced some vendors out of business. The city's attempt to remedy the air conditioning woes with a temporary unit on the sidewalk prompted more complaints that it was blocking parking and unsightly.
In March, a county Circuit Court judge ruled that Market House Ventures did not have to pay rent to the city while the lawsuit is pending.
Ray Weaver, a spokesman for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, said because the case is pending, he could not comment, but declared Market House would go on despite the sudden departure.
"Once a lot of the issues are resolved, it will survive," Weaver said. "It's survived worse than this."
Nikki Roden, manager of Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop at the Market House, said she closed Sunday night at 8 p.m. and everything was in place.
When she arrived to open about 7 a.m. yesterday, the shops were bare except for signs. She said she saw four workers from the stalls hauling away the last fixtures and putting them in two large trucks.
"They didn't even tell their other employees," Roden said. "The manager didn't know. One little girl came in, she was almost in tears. She expected to work."
Roden added, "It makes it look extremely empty and deserted, and it already had that feeling. But now it's more so."