In 1797, President George Washington designated two acres in the heart of Washington City for use as a public marketplace. For the next 134 years, Center Market was a Washington D.C. landmark on Pennsylvania Avenue, until it was demolished in 1931 to make way for the National Archives Building.
The National Archives History Office has produced a new online exhibit on Center Market, which is available in the Google Cultural Institute.
Throughout its history, Center Market was loud and lively. The marketplace was filled with crowds of people and transportation of all kinds. Street vendors or “hucksters,” farmers, and market men sold fruits, vegetables, and live animals to city-dwelling Washingtonians. The market attracted middle-class ladies, community leaders, businessmen, and social reformers.
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 right from the Canal.
As the city of Washington D.C. 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 and hired prominent architect Adolf Cluss to design a modern and lavish new market facility fronting Pennsylvania Avenue.
The ornate Center Market building attracted thousands of customers a day. Streetcar lines from all corners of the city converged at the market.
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.
The interior of Center Market feature over 600 modern market stalls featuring elaborate displays and high quality goods such as cured meats, baked goods, and flower arrangements.
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, greenery, and even preparing food at open-air restaurants.
Center Market returned to public ownership in 1921, managed by the Department of Agriculture. However, this arrangement was short-lived. The red brick Victorian market building was incompatible with the 1901 Senate Park (McMillan) Commission Plan’s vision of a unified city of white marble and monuments. Despite protests from the city and the community of Washington D.C., Center Market was demolished in 1931.
On May 17, 1931, the Sunday Star printed a eulogy to the market: “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.”
Center Market is no longer standing, but traces of its significance can be found in the photographs and documents stored in the National Archives.
To learn more about Center Market, visit the new “A Capital Market” exhibit on Google Cultural Institute.
To see more historical photos of Center Market visit our Flickr page.