Before the buttoned-down, neoclassical National Archives building came to dominate the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, an entirely different architectural and cultural landscape was present for more than a hundred years: a massive, sprawling marketplace, one of the biggest in the country.
Center Market, seen from the east, in about 1910
This was once perhaps the most central spot in the city, half way between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue and intersecting one of the few roads (Seventh Street) that led out of the city to parts north. George Washington himself designated this spot as a marketplace, and the first Center Market opened for business here in 1801 in a building designed in part by James Hoban, architect of the White House. Additional markets (including Western Market, Eastern Market, Northern Liberty Market, and others) would be established as well, but Center Market was always the biggest and busiest.
Center Market c. 1920. Source: Library of Congress.
In its earliest days it was aptly known as the Marsh Market; Tiber Creek originally ran through part of the market's square, and fish vendors would store live fish in wire baskets that they lowered into the creek. A major effort was undertaken in 1823 to level and raise the ground and confine the creek to the Washington Canal bed along B Street (Constitution Avenue). Despite the reclaimed terra firma, the Marsh Market was crowded and chaotic on market days; farmers from all parts congregated with their wagons, horses, livestock, and produce; customers jockeyed for the best buys; and other assorted hucksters and hangers-on found ways to feed off the activity. The marshy areas in the vicinity of the canal and market supported numerous waterfowl, and boys would happily find and shoot them and then immediately sell them to vendors in the marketplace.
The southeast corner of 15th and G Streets, NW, directly across the street from the Treasury Department and just a block from the White House, has been a power address since banker George W. Riggs invested in it in the mid 1800s. Riggs built the Riggs House hotel that stood there from 1860 until 1911, when Riggs' heirs decided they could make more money by building a much larger office building on the site. The new building would house one of the city's grandest theaters, but the real drama would come when preservationists tried to save it from annihilation in 1979.
The new Riggs Building, completed in 1912, was designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, one of Washington's most prominent architects and designer of the Hamilton Hotel. De Sibour clearly took inspiration from the Beaux-Arts-style National Metropolitan Bank Building, completed in 1907 and immediately adjoining the Riggs site on 15th Street. He kept the same scale and building materials—including brick faced with white Tennessee marble (on the bottom floors) and a copper mansard roof with dormers—to form a stately and unified row of buildings that "answered" Robert Mills' imposing neoclassical Treasury Building across the street. Rich classical embellishments are everywhere in the two buildings, yet they are confident and dignified, never overdone. The bank building has two great Corinthian columns that convey strength and solidity and yet are set within a marble picture frame, as it were, that keeps them from being overbearing. Both buildings share a heavy modillioned cornice above the sixth floor, topped with lions' heads. For the Riggs Building, de Sibour echoed the bank's Corinthian columns with more subtle pilasters and added classical swags and other elegant surface ornamentation.
Here's another eastward view of downtown streets in the early 1900s, a block north of the previously discussed scene at 15th and F in Washington's then-booming financial district, where much construction was taking place or soon to do so. The tall red building in this view is the Home Life Building, built in 1901. The Washington Building took its place in 1927 and remains there today.
We're focusing today on the white building just glimpsed on the right, a hotel called the Riggs House. Now largely forgotten, the Riggs House was a prominent hotel in the last half of the 19th century.