George Washington envisioned the capital city as a vibrant commercial center that included a thriving market on the edge of the National Mall. In 1801, Center Market opened on land Washington had set aside between the US Capitol and the White House. Market stalls gradually sprawled over two city blocks, teeming with farmers, craftspeople, retail outlets, entertainments, and in the early days, slave traders. In 1931, the Market closed. Its traffic, smells, and noise were incompatible with new visions of a capital city of monumental grandeur.
What happened to George Washington's plan for a market near the Mall?
When President George Washington and city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant planned the national capital in 1791, Washington designated 2 acres for a Center Market between the Capitol and President’s House, on the edge of the National Mall. Center Market officially opened in 1801. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson strolled among market stalls monitoring the quality of the 37 varieties of fruits and vegetables that early vendors offered for sale.
Center Market was a hub of commercial and entrepreneurial life for African Americans in Washington. African Americans traded at the market, purchased household supplies, and owned stalls, like the vendor in this photograph. Before the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia in 1850, slave traders conducted business in one corner of the market.
Throughout the 1800s, Congress and the public protested that the market posed a health and safety hazard, despite its popularity and its importance to Washington’s local economy. Sprawling stalls and transport wagons filled the streets while garbage clogged the nearby canal. By 1870, the market housed 700 vendors. The next year construction began on a modern building with light, ventilation, and drainage to replace the sprawling marketplace.
The new Center Market opened after 3 years of construction and delays. Federal and local officials argued with the architects about plans and property rights. Racial conflicts further delayed construction when the all-white Bricklayer's Union opposed a contract awarded to an African American bricklaying company, claiming the workers were inexperienced. The African American company kept the contract for the market, but the union pressured the contractor to hire white workers and to pay the higher wages that white workers demanded.
In the early 1900s, the McMillan Plan's new design for the Mall and surrounding areas eventually pushed the Market off of the Mall. Busy daily activities and traffic at the Center Market conflicted with the Plan's vision of the Mall as a quiet unified park for monuments and museums. The Market's location on Constitution Avenue was to be reserved for museums and government buildings. In 1931, Center Market closed, displacing 2,000 dealers and employees. President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone of the new National Archives building on that site in 1933.