|Center Market, seen from the east, in about 1910|
|Center Market c. 1920. Source: Library of Congress.|
By the 1850s, Center Market was an unsightly, unsanitary, and overgrown sprawl of assorted buildings and shacks that encroached on the streets around it and still could barely contain all the market activity it supported. In a paper delivered before the Columbia Historical Society (now the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.) in 1922, hat-merchant-turned-amateur-historian Washington Topham recalled the old market:
As a boy I used to go in and out of the old Centre Market, before the present splendid structures were built, and I well remember their quaint appearance, the old wooden sheds, the low, soiled, whitewashed, weather-beaten walls, with the green moss growing over the shingled roof and hanging from the eaves.
|An ad from 1909 for a Center Market vendor|
Closely connected to both the D.C. government and the new market company was architect Adolf Cluss who designed many prominent Washington buildings in the days when pressed red brick was king, including Shepherd's Row, the old Masonic Temple, the original National Museum building, the Franklin School, and many others. For the new Center Market Cluss designed an elaborate square of four connected buildings with an open courtyard in the center. The design seemed to reach a compromise between the stateliness requisite of a grand Pennsylvania Avenue building and the Victorian eccentricities that were the fashion of the day. As with several of his other buildings, Cluss incorporated elements of the German Renaissance Revival into the structure's extensive decorations, which also included multiple stringcourses and fanciful towers. The rear and two side buildings containing the market wings and their twin-towered facades were completed and opened on time in 1872, but the central building on the north side was not finished until several years later.
At 57,500 square feet and 666 separate vendor stalls, Cluss claimed in 1878 that the market was the largest in the country. It was designed to incorporate the most advanced ideas of the time, including two-story-high corridors to allow for plenty of ventilation, eight electric elevators, the city's first cold-storage vaults, its own artesian wells, and an ice plant. While established merchants could rent out one or more stalls in the market itself, others with fewer resources could rent space in the courtyard and sell from their own makeshift stands.
|View of the B Street (south) side of Center Market|
|Louis P. Gatti's fruit stand at Center Market (Source: Library of Congress)|
|Center Market c. 1886. Source; Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington.|
|"Early Morning at Center Market" from The Washington Times, March 1, 1903|
Of note were a wide variety of African Americans selling all manner of foodstuffs in what was likely the only venue available to them at that time—the market curbside, which they could occupy for free as long as they claimed their space before anyone else. In 1892, under the title, "War Didn't Efface Them," the Post reported on older African Americans that had survived slavery: "Here on every market day year in and year out are to be found the sturdy remnants of the old plantation stock. Nearly all of them own their own little patch of ground, and their stock in trade displayed on an upturned box or barrel consists of what they can raise with the hoe or glean from the wild products of the woods and fields." Among the products on sale were "the first bunches of half-opened arbutus and dog-toothed violets" in early summer, along with "green leeks and little white spring onions and little indigestible bunches of red and white radishes... Later in the season the stands along the south wall bloom out with a wealth of color, golden rod and crimson dahlias with stiff-leafed zenias and cockscomb and bachelor's button, the latter warranted to keep indefinitely." One could also observe live terrapins "tethered by one leg to one of the rusty nails that protrude from the edge of the soap box which serves the terrapin's owner for a seat."
A Washington Times reporter recorded her own interactions at curbside in 1902: "What in the world is this? she asked. "That's a mud turtle's flipper, caught in the full of the moon." "Is it 5 cents?" "Lord, no. Flippers come high, lady--when they're caught in the full of the moon. That identical flipper is worth all of 15 cents, but you can have it this morning for 10." "And how much for the hare's foot?" "That's a first-class hare's foot, lady. I ain't seen none to beat it nowhere—but I ain't going to tote it back home if you want it bad enough to pay a dime. There ain't no luck to beat a hare's foot—excepting turtle flippers, of course."
|Street vendors outside Center Market c. 1904 (author's collection).|
|Street vendors outside of Center Market in the 1920s.|
|Contemporary view from approximately the same vantage point as the first postcard.|