Washington's First Convention Center

It wasn't that ugly concrete behemoth on H Street, completed in 1980, that was mercifully imploded in 2004. No, the first convention center was to the northwest of that, in what is now Mount Vernon Triangle, on the east side of 5th Street NW between K and L Streets. It was built as a market house in 1875, a grand red-brick shed of a building with a huge arcing roof suspended over a cavernous open hall, a marvel of Victorian engineering. The City Vista apartment/condominium complex now rises in its place. 

The market house, originally called the Northern Liberty Market, only came into existence because of some serious governmental rough-housing instigated by Governor Alexander Shepherd in 1872. In those days, there was an earlier incarnation of the Northern Liberty Market at Mount Vernon Square where the Carnegie Library is now located. It had been established there in 1846 to serve the Northern Liberties neighborhood, an area beyond the populated downtown sector, roughly north of G Street and east of 12th Street, NW. The Mount Vernon Square location provided ready access to farmers bringing their goods into town along 7th Street, the city's leading commercial strip.

Boss Shepherd is well known for making dramatic improvements in the city's infrastructure—utilities laid in; streets graded and paved—when he was head of the Board of Public Works and later governor of the District of Columbia in the 1870s. Shepherd was determined to make Washington into a clean and modern city, and he concluded that the old, unsightly, and unsanitary marketplace at Mount Vernon Square was standing in the way of progress. Notice was given to shopkeepers that the market was to be closed, but when few were inclined to move Shepherd orchestrated a sudden, nighttime attack to obliterate the market before anyone had a chance to object. Amateur historian Washington Topham witnessed the event as a boy:
On September 3, 1872, at about eight o'clock in the evening a large force of workmen in the employ of the Board of Public Works suddenly appeared...with picks and axes and rapidly tore down the buildings and sheds and cleared the square....
With my brother I was present that evening and mingled with the workmen during their work of destruction. So also was my cousin Millard Fillmore Bates with his terrier dog catching rats and mice, as hundreds of them ran back and forth in quest of new shelter. As the sheds were tumbling down in all directions, a portion of the roof of one fell upon my cousin killing him instantly....
The work of demolition was accomplished very rapidly and with a good deal of orderly precision. The scene that greeted the eyes of the people the following morning was one not to be forgotten....
           - Records of the Columbia Historical Society (Vol. 24, 1922).

It wasn't until 1898 that all the claims from the incident, including those of the family of young Millard Fillmore Bates, were finally settled. Meanwhile, the merchants who had been rousted from Mount Vernon Square needed somewhere else to go. Some merchants moved down to Center Market. Others went north to 7th and O Streets where Shepherd had wanted them to set up a temporary market; they were successful enough to stay and build a permanent O Street Market building in 1881. A larger group formed an association known as the Northern Liberty Market Company that sought a new location for their displaced market.

The company eventually settled on the previously-mentioned Mount Vernon Triangle location, on 5th Street NW between K and L, two blocks east of the 7th Street business corridor. This spot was out in the sticks, literally. James Croggon, writing about its history in The Evening Star in 1908, noted that a marsh had covered this area in the early part of the 19th century and that an enterprising individual by the name of Samuel DeVaughn had run a leech farm there in the 1830s, leeches being in high demand for the medical profession. More recently, according to Washington Topham, it had been owned by George Savage and known as Savage Square, with a large family house on one corner of the lot. The Northern Liberty Market Company bought the western half of the square from George Savage's heirs for a reported $110,000 in 1874.

Early 20th century view of the Northern Liberty market house, L Street side (author's collection).

After a temporary wooden markethouse was put up, work began in earnest on the new Northern Liberty Market, designed and built by James H. McGill. Heavy stone foundation walls had to be extended 12 feet into the marshy soil; on top of them red-brick walls with granite trim were erected. Over 200 tons of iron were used to create 14 giant roof trusses, each spanning 126 feet, that carried the tin-covered wooden roof over the building. Inside the floor was paved with flagstones and canted slightly so that it could be easily hosed down. Merchants could rent the building's 284 stalls for $5 or $10 a month each.

A view of the Northern Liberty Market from the K Street side (Source: Library of Congress).

The same location today.

The market attracted commercial and residential development in adjoining blocks, but, according to Topham, it did not do spectacularly well; one might have predicted as much given its rather remote location. After a new owner came into control of the company in 1891, plans were soon afoot to make better use of the cavernous open space above the market stalls by adding a second floor to be rented out for public events. In this way the Northern Liberty Market came to be transformed—augmented, really—to become the city's first convention center."Washington is no longer a convention city without a convention hall," the Washington Post proclaimed in May 1893, upon viewing the newly constructed space, which had a reported capacity of 6,000 seated or 10,000 standing. "The floor space of the hall is larger than that of the famous Madison Square Garden in New York, and it is unbroken by pillars. One of its first virtues is that it is as nearly fire-proof as a building can be. The body of the floor itself is of concrete, with only a layer of boards over it."

As recorded in the city's newspapers, the new Convention Hall became the venue for a wide variety of social events. The first big event was a concert by the Marine Band at Christmas time in 1893, a charity event aimed at benefiting the city's poor. A reported 8,000 people crammed into the hall for that. Other early events in the 1890s included an annual Pure Food Exhibit, several religious revivals, political debates, and a large labor rally. In January 1896, the floor was covered over to create a temporary ice rink, which the Post claimed was the largest in the world. A thousand skaters showed up on opening night, plus twice that number just to be spectators. A year later a six-day bicycle race was held on a specially-designed track that was laid down where the ice had been a year earlier. While the competitors stopped to eat and sleep, they were not allowed to leave the hall until the six-day endurance test was over.

A crowd gathers at the hall in May 1910 for a convention of Sunday School teachers. (Author's collection)

An auto show at the Convention Hall in 1924 (Source: Library of Congress).

The Convention Hall hosted numerous exhibitions—the first auto show in Washington was held there in December 1900—as well as revival meetings, rallies, school graduations, concerts, and even a few dramatic productions. Then in 1925, at a cost of $200,000, the owners converted the large open space into bowling alleys. With some 50 alleys, the hall was reported to be one of the largest in the world. It also featured up-to-date amenities. "A decided innovation in the construction of the alleys is the shower baths and rest rooms [lounges] for the women bowlers; and the shower baths and smoking rooms for the men," reported the Post. For two decades the bowling center prospered here.

Source: Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, the Northern Liberty Market underneath continued to provide an alternative marketplace for those unwilling or disinclined to patronize the much larger and more hectic Center Market down on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, Center Market's days were numbered, as it stood in the way of the McMillan Commission's vision of a monumental, imperial city. When Center Market finally closed in 1931, many of its retail merchants moved uptown to the Northern Liberty Market, which was rechristened "New Center Market."

Fifteen years later, contrary to the early assurances by the Post that the building was fireproof, the upper part of the Market was consumed in a spectacular blaze. The fire marshal theorized that the heavily shellacked wooden bowling lanes rapidly spread the fire, which also fed on the wood-lined roof. The nighttime apocalypse began around 2 a.m. on March 1, 1946, and within an hour the giant iron trusses holding up the roof had collapsed into a tangled heap on the second-story floor.

"A dozen drowned rats turned their pink toes toward the ruins of the huge blood-red brick pile that for 71 years had housed one of Washington's biggest food marts while the more than 400 people who were suddenly without businesses and jobs stood silently and helplessly by or cracked wry jokes about the great fire that had destroyed their livelihood," a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald wrote rather melodramatically. In fact, though the bowling alleys were gone and the architectural splendor of the building forever lost, the market proved salvageable. The second-story floor, said to be a two-foot thick slab of reinforced concrete, had protected the market space underneath from the fire (if not from water damage). In fact, merchants were able to retrieve still-frozen chickens and refrigerated meats virtually unspoiled from intact cold storage containers, although items left out in the open were mostly destroyed. Almost immediately there was talk of levelling off the building at the second-story floor, throwing a flat roof over the whole thing, and reopening for business, and that is exactly what happened.

By mid-April, the market was reopened, although no one could ever figure out a way to make good use of the great reinforced concrete expanse of the second floor, now serving as a rooftop. One idea was to put a heliport there, and, presumably to demonstrate its feasibility, a helicopter reportedly landed there in 1949. But, of course, that didn't solve the problem that no one really needed a heliport in Mount Vernon Triangle. The roof remained disused.

In 1955, after giving the structure a fresh coat of pink paint, new owners rechristened the market once again, this time as "Center Market City," and advertised it as the "million-dollar market with an international flavor." But business was beginning to fall off nonetheless, despite the draw of the hard-to-find exotic imports. People were abandoning old-fashioned markets such as this as quickly as they were turning their backs on downtowns in general. By 1962, only 54 of the 110 market stalls were occupied, according to the Washington Daily News. "The supermarkets have been giving us hell," said long-time fruit-and-vegetable seller Nicholas Zuras, as reported in The Evening Star. Finally in March 1963 the market shut down for good. Among those forced away was Bertie Davis, 82, the last of the "herb ladies" who had made a living selling unique herbal remedies—such as black snakeroot, rabbit tobacco, and Indian turnips—on the sidewalk outside the market, as she and others had done at Center Market on Pennsylvania Avenue decades earlier. "Leavin' this old place behind is gonna hurt my heart," she told the Star, "But when you gotta go, you gotta go."

The building's last gasp was its stint beginning in 1965 as the National Historical Wax Museum, a private enterprise featuring a variety of historical scenes with wax figures that would appear laughably amateurish to us now. Within a few years, the Wax Museum was looking for new quarters, but it stayed until its lease expired in 1974, when it moved to 4th and E Streets in southwest Washington. The empty building was then finally demolished in 1985.

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  1. Unbelievable that this beauty lasted till 1985. By then the back to the city trajectory was all but certain, although with Marion Barry it might have still seemed out of sight in DC. In the heyday of white flight and modernisms domination of architecture and planning schools, I can see it, but by 1985?
    What a shame.

  2. Damn interesting post! Thanks a lot for shining light on the history of DC.

  3. There was a nightclub called The Wax Museum that was active in the early 80s. I've always wondered if it was in this building...

  4. The Wax Museum nightclub was at 4th and E Streets, SW, in the building where the National Historical Wax Museum had moved after it left the old Convention Hall site in 1974. The nightclub operated a 1,000 seat venue there in the early 1980s but closed in 1984 for redevelopment of the site.

  5. Another great post. Can you post any pictures of the building in its post-fire flat-roofed life?

  6. I wish I had an image of the flat-roofed building that I could post here, but I don't. However, the D. C. Historical Society has at least one, and you can see it here.

  7. What a thrill to see my Great Uncle, Washington Topham quoted on this site. I had never heard the story of Millard Fillmore Bates until finding it here, and now have another leaf to add to the family tree. I look forward to exploring this site further!

    Andrew Topham


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