City Cast

Looking Back at DC’s Old Central Market

Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Posted on August 22
Center Market in 1920.

Center Market in 1920. (Library of Congress)

Before the National Archives Museum dominated the block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 9th and 7th streets, it was home to one of the largest marketplaces in the country.

Center Market opened in 1801 (designated by George Washington himself). Because it was built on a canal (now Constitution Avenue), the market would flood whenever it rained, giving it the nickname Marsh Market.

Farmers congregated with their livestock, produce, and goods, and the market quickly became an unsanitary and overgrown sprawl of structures that encroached on the surrounding area. In 1878, it was rebuilt to accommodate 666 vendor stalls, but it still spilled out onto the street.

Louis P. Gatti's fruit stand at Center Market

Louis P. Gatti's fruit stand at Center Market. (Library of Congress)

Central Market was also a key part of D.C.’s slave trade infrastructure. Enslaved people were frequently sold at the market and were forced to labor there. Two slave auction sites — Robey’s Tavern and the Yellow House — were across the Mall. Nearby hotels had cells where owners would leave enslaved people while they conducted business at the market or in town.

Central Market closed in 1931 to make way for the National Archives building. Some vendors moved to other markets around D.C., but the majority went out of business as residents started preferring modern-day grocery stores.

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