In 1897, when this photograph was taken, the city leased the second floor for the Second District Courthouse. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Since Colonial times large markets--normally near the rivers--supplied New Yorkers with fresh produce, fish and meat. In 1812 a proposal was made to established a public market further inland, on the oddly-shaped parcel of ground between Orange and Rynders Streets (later named Baxter and Centre Streets, respectively) and Grand Street.
In his 1862 The Market Book, historian Thomas F. De Voe explained, "but as the war of 1812 became an all-absorbing topic, the matter was laid over until it was again revived by the inhabitants of the Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth Wards, who presented a formidable petition to the Common Council on the 14th of July, 1817." Morris Martin, who owned the triangular parcel, agreed to sell it to the city for $5,000 (just under $100,000 today), with the stipulation that it would "always be used for public market purposes."
By November that year the original Centre Market was opened with 14 butcher stalls. Thomas F. De Voe recalled, "The market was opened with a good business, and the first meat sold in it was by Thomas Mook...who claimed to have sold a fine steak to Daniel Spader, an old butcher of Washington Market, who resided in Mulberry, near Spring Street."
Perhaps the most notable proprietors were widowed sisters, familiarly known as Aunt Fanny Watson and Aunt Katy Barr. De Voe called them "both market-women, or hucksters." Fanny worked the market until her death in 1841, and her sister continued until she died later at the age of 90.
Because of the dense population of the area, a fire bell was installed in the steeple of the market house in 1821 at a cost of about $1,280 in today's money. The following year the market building was extended another 75 feet "to accommodate country people and fishermen," according to the New York Herald.
A major renovation and expansion to the market was proposed at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen on January 6, 1834. It said in part:
The market buildings, as they now stand, are in a dilapidated state, so much so that if no other site is speedily procured, they will have to be taken down and new buildings put up at a very considerable expense.
The location was critical to the need to improve the structure. The proposal estimated the number of New Yorkers served by the market at between 30,000 and 40,000, along with "the whole of the 14th Ward." Because it was "an inland Market," everything had to be brought "by wagons, carts or sleds" and the accommodations for receiving them were insufficient. Too, "the country people" who brought their goods in, had no place for their wagons, causing many to go to other, more adapted markets. A budget of $50,000 was appropriated for the project.
The major renovation, completed in 1839, resulted in a Greek Revival style, brick-faced two-story structure. Upon completion of the work, the building was opened with a gala entertainment. On January 5, 1839 The Evening Post announced, "A Butchers' Ball and Supper, in commemoration of the opening of the new Centre Market, will take place on the 17th January, in the spacious rooms over the said market." Tickets were not inexpensive, costing the equivalent of $145 today, however one ticket admitted "a gentleman and two ladies."
The Centre Market as it appeared in the 1830's. from the collection of the New York State Military Museum.
Four months later the city changed the name of Rynders Street to Centre Street, "to correspond with the name of the market," according to the New York Herald.
The vast second story space where the ball was held was used for drilling the militia. The New York Herald later said, "The rooms were divided up among several regiments, including the Sixth, Eighth and Seventy-first." It would not be long before the troops were called to action. On December 10, 1839 the Morning Herald reported, "the Generals of the 1st and 6th brigades of New York State Artillery, were ordered to meet in the ball room, at Centre Market, last night, to drill and to make preparations for a war of extermination upon the poultry and pigs in the Hallibeck hills."
The officers had much work to do in shaping up what the newspaper called a "hungry looking lot of fellows." The article said, "the large room was crammed so full of all sorts of fellows that there was no room to turn; a little Colonel jumped up on a box in the middle of the room, and cried 'order,' at which everybody laughed."
The military shared the upper floor with other groups who rented space. On February 22, 1842, for instance, the New-York Tribune announced, "The friends of Temperance will not forget the great Celebration of Washington's Birthday this evening by all the Temperance Associations of the city at the Centre Market Hall...We are sure the occasion will be one of high interest." And by 1853 a branch of the New York City Police Department had offices in the upper floors.
In 1859 vendors complained that some sellers were overstepping the prescribed boundaries of their stalls. On the morning of November 14 James Irving, the Superintendent of the Public Markets, arrived to correct the problem. It did not go well.
The New York Herald reported, "as soon as his presence became known a number of excited individuals flocked around him, among them a German named Herrich, who has lately been deprived of one of his stands, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Heckman, who also occupied a stand." The pair verbally abuse Irving and "when he admonished them to keep quiet, [they] commenced an assault upon him, the man striking him, and the woman scratching his face." Irving called a policeman and had the two arrested.
Some of sellers came to Herrich's defense, calling him "an inoffensive, elderly man" who "went up to [Irving] quietly and civilly, and asked him some question about his stand whereupon Irving flew into a violent passion, seized Herrlich by the collar, and shoved him out of the rear of the market. A tussle ensued, when Mrs. Heckman, who is a very large, full faced German woman, rushed in to protect her brother-in-law."
The New York Herald reported that "She then 'pitched into' Irving, and gave his face a terrible scratching." Although Irving directed the head of the Centre Market to evict both parties, by the late afternoon a petition signed by nearly every seller arrived at the City Inspector's desk, asking to have them restored.
By then the building was suffering from neglect and use. Two years earlier, as reported in the New York Herald, "while the Eighth [Regiment] was marching at cadence step, the floor suddenly broke away and sunk many inches." The incident prompted the military to cease using the upper floor.
In 1872 a deal was struck with the state and the city to renovate the upper floors to once again be used as the drill space. On December 15 that year the New York Herald reported on the work. "Accordingly, the upper story has been taken down and is now in course of reconstruction in a thoroughly substantial manner." When the new second floor was completed, said the article, "it will then be leased to the city as an armory for the Fifth regiment National Guard."
The handsome new top floor was designed in the Gothic Revival style, with storybook turrets, a castellated pediment and square-headed drip moldings. Miller's Strangers' Guide for the City of New York described the renovated structure as "a well-built and commodious place, adapted for the various departments of a public market."
The bolstered reputation of the structure did not last especially long. The 1894 edition of Shepp's New York City Illustrated wrote an article about the new Central Market next to Grand Central Station. The writer warned, "It most not be confounded with the ancient and now rather dilapidated Centre Market, in Centre street, between Grand and Broome."
And, in fact, the property was already being eyed as the site of a civic structure. On March 3, 1897 a meeting of property owners and businessmen was held "to take steps to secure legislation to erect a municipal building on the site at present occupied by Centre Market," reported the New-York Tribune.
The idea was bandied about for seven years, until on February 23, 1904 The Evening World reported, "Old Centre Market will be the site of the proposed new Police Headquarters for Manhattan." The article added, "This site is already a possession of the city and was recently condemned...as unfit for further use for market purposes."
The Centre Market was demolished to make way for the palatial Police Headquarters Building, designed by Hoppin and Koen, which survives.
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