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Union Market will celebrate its fifth anniversary Fall 2018, although its history stretches back much further. The revitalized market, launched by EDENS, is located at the same site as the original Union Terminal Market, which opened in 1931. Union Terminal replaced Center Market, which had been open since 1871, but was torn down to make way for the National Archives. The Florida Avenue Market represents a very diverse and unique pocket of Washington, DC. It is one of the city’s primary locations for industrial wholesale distribution, the location of the DC Farmer’s Market and home to several unique stores. The historic nature of some of the buildings and the functions of the area offers a certain character and grittiness. The Market is in close proximity to the city’s northern gateway of New York Avenue and is currently being renewed and redeveloped. 

Since the city’s inception, public markets have occupied a central role in the lives of Washingtonians. Through the mid-twentieth century, public markets supplied the District’s households and businesses with fresh produce, meat and other foodstuffs on a daily basis. The precursor to the Florida Avenue Market was Center Market, built in 1802, which was located in the square bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and Seventh and Ninth Streets, NW (the site of the present- day National Archives Building). In 1926, the Public Buildings Act called for the redevelopment of the Federal Triangle area, which encompassed Center Market. Although the market’s stalls bustled, the surrounding area had fallen on hard times. Following the act, Congress directed the Commissioners of the District of Columbia to study potential sites for a new farmers’ market. A central concern of the Commissioners was that the farmers’ market and wholesale industry be preserved in a single location. The Commissioners sought a centrally-located site with proximity to highways, railroads, and waterways. These criteria led the Commissioners to propose a site in Southwest Washington, DC, which sparked great controversy on Capitol Hill. Maryland farmers favored a site closer to their fields and lobbied Congress to select a site in Northeast DC. Neighborhood organizations also joined the fray. 

In 1928, the federation of wholesalers, later known as the Union Terminal Market Association, purchased 40 acres of the Patterson Tract bounded by Florida Avenue, NE on the south, Sixth Street, NE on the east, Penn Street, NE on the north and the railroad right-of-way to the west. This site provided easy access to the railroad freight yards northeast of Union Station. The Union Terminal Market Association announced that the market would encompass “40 stores of the most modern design and equipment.” Construction of the $1 million Union Terminal Market—the original name of the Florida Avenue Market—began in 1929 under the supervision of local architect E. L. Bullock. The warehouses designed by Bullock are two-story buff brick buildings in a strict classical style. The buildings are characterized by their overall symmetry and classical details. Bullock’s design was easily replicated and arranged in multiples to form a continuous building the length of each block. The typical building has a covered loading area supported by Doric columns. An arcade connects the continuous line of loading areas. 

The Union Terminal Market officially opened on February 15, 1931. The Evening Star described the layout and amenities of the new Market: “Ample space is provided for the immediate needs of wholesalers...Wide streets are being provided to handle present and future traffic. Extensive parking will be available. The Market’s proximity to the center of population, the railroad facilities, the economic distribution factors and the buildings are regarded as valuable assets.” The Boyd’s City Directory lists the types of operations that constituted the Market in its early days. Although the Market was primarily comprised of wholesale operations, several retail functions were also interspersed throughout the site. In 1932, the Union Terminal Market included 27 produce vendors, seven meat vendors, four delicatessens, two wholesale confectionary companies, and several merchants specializing in eggs or fish. Throughout the 1930s, the construction of buildings continued in the Market. This second phase of construction was characterized by smaller buildings with separate architects. However, the design of these buildings was heavily influenced by the design of the Market’s original buildings.

For three decades, the farmers’ market continued to operate near the wholesale market, much as it had done at Center Market. In the era of urban renewal, however, city officials came to see this timeless method of food distribution as a public health threat. In 1962, a health inspector found that “hot weather, fast breeding flies and filthy conditions have brought the threat of disease to the market.” Consequently, the city restricted sales in the farmers’ market to fresh fruit and vegetables. The market management warned, “If people can’t get meat and eggs here, they aren’t going to come here at all.” Soon after the ban went into effect, The Washington Post reported that the farmers’ market looked like a graveyard. In 1964, the land adjacent to the Union Terminal Market was sold from underneath the moribund farmers’ market. The dismantling of the Union Terminal farmers’ market marked the end of an era in Washington, DC. In 1967, a modern building was constructed in the Union Terminal Market to replace what had been the last outdoor farmers’ market in the city.

Despite the turbulence surrounding the farmers’ market, wholesale operations at the Union Terminal Market continued to thrive. During the 1950s, new infill warehouses were constructed alongside the 1930s storefronts. In 1958, a U.S.D.A. report found that nearly all the major wholesalers in Washington, DC were located in the Union Terminal Market. However, the Market was entering a period of transition. Supermarkets were establishing their own distribution centers, thus, diffusing the role of the Union Terminal Market. When the Market was built, its wide streets were seen as a solution to a problem that had long plagued DC’s markets:  congestion. But by the late 20th century, tractor-trailers were jamming the Union Terminal Markets’ streets. The Market was also showing signs of a half a century of industrial use. Merchants began leaving the aging Market for modern facilities in the suburbs.

In the early 1980s, the District purchased eight acres adjacent to the western boundary of the Market. The investment was intended to stimulate development of the wholesale food industry in the city. As part of the $2 million economic development initiative, the District partnered with local developers and wholesale merchants to construct a 200,000-square foot L-shaped building on the city-owned property. The auxiliary building was to enable businesses to expand their operations on-site rather than relocate to a suburban location. Many of the new food suppliers that moved into the expanded market space were owned by Chinese and Korean immigrants. At the same time, new immigrant-owned businesses were also moving into the old market as spaces were vacated. The influx of these diverse wholesalers kept the Market fully occupied despite the flight of several large businesses.