Updated: Jan 27, 2021
If you’ve been to any major city in Europe you may have come across the old central markets, many that are still in use today. Typically indoor/outdoor structures, large and airy, with a variety of vendors, some date back centuries. I LOVE visiting these markets! They hold so much history and so many delicious things. A couple of my favorites are Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid and the Central Market Hall in Budapest. Since the dawn of the “supermarket” and major commercial chains, these vendor-based markets are more of a curiosity for tourists and a reminder of a different age. Often more expensive, they are fun to visit nonetheless, with their colorful stalls selling everything from local produce, meats and cheeses to kitschy touristic keepsakes,
Washington, DC used to have a system of such markets, a couple of which still function today. In fact, three of these markets were part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plans, with Western Market to be located in what is now Foggy Bottom, the Center Market downtown, and Eastern Market, just South East of the Capitol Building. Others were added as the city population grew and demand increased. Most have now been lost to history, victims of new city projects and the growing popularity of commercial supermarkets. Their story tells the story of the development of Washington as a city.
Center Market - The Center Market was the first of the planned markets to be built. In fact, George Washington himself decided on the location of the market, which was 7th and the Washington City Canal (now Constitution Avenue) with the canal serving as a way to both keep fish near the market and provide drainage. The location was important because 7th Street was one of the roads that reached far beyond the original city boundaries into the farmland and plantations. Therefore, it would be a direct route for produce to be brought in and sold to DC’s early urbanites. The original market was large but unimpressive-looking, with 700 stalls made of different materials from brick to clapboard. But it was popular, and was constantly swarmed with shoppers within and a jam of carriages without. It was also located not far from the Murder Bay neighborhood (modern day Federal Triangle), and was a popular shopping location for luxury goods sought after by the more successful of the neighborhood’s prostitutes. Center Market was also sadly one of the places where there was a slave market, that was until the city banned slavery in 1850. Thereafter, many freedmen themselves became grocers and sellers working out of Center Market’s stalls.
By the end of the Civil War, city officials planned to raze the original building and enlisted the help of architect Adolf Cluss (also the architect of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building) to build a new market in a more artful style. The new market was a beauty, and eventually covered two full city blocks, from 7th to 9th street, with Pennsylvania to the north and the newly established B Street to the south (B Street replaced the Washington Canal, which was covered over and joined to the sewer system). The new building had a total of 1000 spaces for selling goods, and a 600,000 cubic foot cool storage space for meats was added in 1888. It was the largest market of its kind in the country. Sadly the market only lasted about 43 years before it was marked for demolishing in 1931 as part of the McMillan Plan. In its place now stands the National Archives.
Western Market – Western Market is the lesser known of the markets that were part of the L’Enfant Plan. Its original location was at H and 20th, a ramshackle building that lasted over 50 years, 1802 – 1856. Then it was relocated to the corner of 21st and K Street NW, where it stood for another 100 years until it was demolished and replaced by an office building in 1961. Shortly before that it had been privatized and bought out by Safeway. However, a project to create a new “Western Market” was underway at the shopping center located 2000 I Street NW when COVID hit. They are reaching for historic connection to the original market, but I’ll wait until it opens to inspect how much like a real city market it actually feels like.
Eastern Market – Eastern Market was built in 1873, not long after the “new” Central Market was completed. It, too, was preceded by a much smaller structure that was described somewhat derogatorily as a “filthy shed.” The new building, also constructed by Adolf Cluss, was not as large as Center Market but still contained a sizeable number of stalls. Additions were made on the North side to expand the space in the early 1900s. It was intended to be the city center of the Capital Hill neighborhood, and an incentive for more people to move to that part of the city. Eastern Market is the longest running market in the city, with 134 years of un-interrupted business until a fire gutted it in 2007. I remember the news that day, how the local community was devastated. I was still living in Virginia at the time and had not even visited it yet. Luckily the funds were raised to rebuild and the market opened for business again in 2009. It is the ONLY city market that survives in its original format, and is a thriving and integral part of the community with a multicultural flea market held on the outside of the building on weekends. I recently reacquainted myself with Eastern Market and it reminded me how energetic and vital these markets are for bringing a sense of community to a neighborhood.
Northern Liberty Market - The Northern Liberty Market was not one of the original three planned markets, but came to be of importance in the late 19th century. It was originally built on Mt. Vernon Square, where the Apple Store/Carnegie Library now stands. Like the other earlier markets, it too was torn down as part of Boss Shepherd’s city development plans. In fact, vendors protested once they heard about the planned demolition and had the building guarded. So Shepherd had a crew of 200 – 300 workers take it down overnight, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood whose sleep was interrupted by the sound of a collapsing building in the wee hours of the morning! The market was rebuilt two years later on the block between K and L, and 4th and 5th NW. There were concerns that it wasn’t close enough to downtown to be a viable location, and indeed it was never as bustling as Center Market. So a second story was added that served as a multi-use space which included movie nights, car shows, and conventions. So, the top floor of the Northern Liberties Market also served as the city’s first Convention Center. The top floor was eventually converted to a bowling alley in the 1930s. Some say that the varnish on the lanes is what eventually contributed to an enormous fire that engulfed and brought down the entire second floor in 1946, though miraculously it did not affect too terribly the first floor containing the Market. The Market reopened with a flat roof, but struggled and then closed for good in 1963. The building was then used as wax museum (?!? DC you’re so weird) which was moved to a building in SW in the 80s. Shortly thereafter, the entire building was closed down and razed. Currently, the CityVista condo building stands on the block.
O Street Market – The O Street Market is the only other historical market besides Eastern Market whose original building still stands. Originally called the Northern Market, it was established by a group of vendors who had been left in the cold after Boss Shepherd demolished the Northern Liberty Market. So they selected land on the NW corner of O and 7th, and in 1881 a new market was built with the same pressed red brick and Victorian style that was so popular in that day. This market would serve a more varied clientele, being close to neighborhoods that were inhabited primarily by African American and European immigrant populations. The vendors themselves were at first mostly German immigrants, but gradually more and more African American's became vendors as well. In 1973, the market and the two blocks it shared with other commercial enterprises were bought by James Atkins, an African American entrepreneur and developer, who set about renovating and improving the buildings. The market was closed from 1977 – 1980 during the renovations, but opened to much fanfare with the United House of Prayer's gospel brass band providing music for the festivities. A second renovation in 2003 was interrupted when a snow storm caused the roof to cave in, requiring a MUCH more extensive rebuild than originally envisioned. The Market now holds a Giant, but at least the supermarket chain maintained the original integrity of the historic architecture.
Union Market – Union Market on 5th and N St NE, originally called Union Terminal Market, was the latest addition to the bunch, being built as a mostly outdoor market in 1931 and only lasting a few decades before health regulations stopped allowing the selling of meat outdoors. A new building was established with regulation refrigeration in 1967, but the market never really took off and vendors looked elsewhere. But then in 2012 the building was reopened and used as an upscale boutique food court with 40 food stands. The modern market caters to the burgeoning DC foodie class, with an oyster bar, dumpling stand, and other tasty, though at times pricey, treats.
In these modern times chain supermarkets are still how DC residents do their grocery shopping for the most part. However, over the past decade or so more and more people are gravitating towards farmer’s markets and other non-consolidated approaches to buying their groceries, which was one of the charming things about the former municipal markets. Markets were communal, served a large population, but also provided a space for small growers and vendors to sell their wares. Eastern Market still does brisk business, though as with everything else, COVID has temporarily put a damper on things. I hope what is left of these historic landmarks remain in the city's memory. I always point out the former location of Center Market (the Archives) on my Madams of DC tour, and where the city has carved the words "Market Square" into the building at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue in memoriam of one of the city's most important original features.