“The great focus of interest, the one-time social center, place of endless entertainment, is gone and can never be restored…Another generation will have no concept of the significance of the site on which they stand.”
Located halfway between the White House and the United States Capitol, Center Market occupied valuable and symbolic space in the heart of Washington, DC.
Center Market was well named; the market stood at the center of the physical city, but it also served as a social center. Individuals of different ages, classes, and races came together in the public marketplace.
Throughout its history, Center Market was loud and lively. Center Market’s vibrant and chaotic history can be recaptured through photographs, maps, and documents stored in the National Archives.
THE HISTORY OF CENTER MARKET
Center Market opened for business in 1801. Public markets were common in early American cities. Markets provided city dwellers with fresh produce and gave country farmers a place to sell their goods.
In its earliest days, Center Market was no more than a collection of ramshackle wooden sheds. Bordered by the Washington Canal, the swampy land earned it the nickname “Marsh Market.”
Early Washingtonians recalled hunting wild ducks in the wetlands near the market and purchasing live fish from the canal.
As the city of Washington grew, so did complaints about the dirt and disorder of the public market. A group of investors formed the private Washington Market Company in 1870. The Market Company hired prominent architect Adolf Cluss to design a modern new building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The ornate Victorian market building attracted thousands of customers a day. Streetcar lines from all corners of the city converged at the market. During the early 20th century, the market added a billiards room, bowling alley, and a dance hall for community events.
Center Market returned to public ownership in 1921, when it became managed by the Department of Agriculture. However, this arrangement was short-lived. Center Market was located at the tip of the Senate Park (McMillan) Commission Plan’s proposed Federal Triangle. The commission envisioned a unified city of white marble and monuments centered on a majestic and magnified National Mall.
In 1931, the government demolished the Center Market building and began to construct the National Archives.
The interior of Center Market housed over 600 modern market stalls featuring elaborate displays and high-quality goods such as cured meats, baked goods, and flower arrangements.
Designed to appeal to middle-class marketers, the market building was thoroughly modern and hygienic.
The facility boasted high ceilings with ventilated skylights, electric lighting, cold-storage vaults, and a spacious café.
In May 1870, Congress passed an act of incorporation allowing the Washington Market Company to demolish the current market and erect a modern replacement.
As part of the act, Adolph Cluss, architect for the Washington Market Company, was required to submit plans for the new market.
Cluss presented this plan to Congress in 1874 as part of an investigation into the construction.
He eventually abandoned the proposal for a grand hotel in the market, but he did include restaurants and retail stores in the space.
OUTSIDE THE MARKET
Center Market’s exterior was just as bustling and crowded as its interior. Farmers’ wagons, trucks, and automobiles lined the curb outside of the market selling fresh country produce.
For a nominal fee, street vendors, or “hucksters,” could sell wares outside of Center Market. Hucksters packed the streets around the market, hawking seasonal goods and greenery, and even preparing food at open-air restaurants.
Washingtonians of all ages passed by Center Market.
The pressed brick market building faced a public square on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Center Market is visible to the far right of these photographs.
The aerial photograph, taken by the Army Air Corps, reveals the massive size of the public marketplace.
Below is an enlarged version with Center Market circled.
THE END OF AN ERA
On January 1, 1931, Center Market closed for business.
It was demolished to make way for the new National Archives Building.
Curator — Julie Rogers
Contributor — Emily Niekrasz
Contributor — Alley Jordan
Project Manager — Jessie Kratz
Editor — Mary Ryan