York’s City Market Was an Architectural Wonder
Old photo of original Dempwolf drawing of City Market
Over the past month or so I have been occasionally writing about York’s market houses. Central Market and the Penn Street Farmers Market still operate in their original nineteenth century buildings. The old Eastern Market and Carlisle Avenue Market buildings, both over 100 years old, still stand, but they now serve other purposes. New Eastern Market’s building is comparatively new at 55, when compared to the others.
The old market buildings were somewhat similar, brick and sturdy with very high ceilings and lots of windows, some very high, to catch the light. The most architecturally stunning of York markets, City Market, not longer exists. It was torn down after gracing the York skyline for only 84 years.
Early 20th century postcard showing enlarged City Market with tower still at full height
See below for my recent York Sunday News column on City Market. The York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives has a number of photos of the market house as it stood and when it was being torn down. I will be including them in future posts.
Demolished City Market Showed Best of Dempwolf Architecture
It was arguably the most magnificent building ever erected in York County. Its architect, J. A. Dempwolf, was acclaimed in national publications for its design. Photographs record the grandeur of the exterior, with its vast patterned Peach Bottom slate roof and 95 foot tower inspired by the Florentine Palazzo Vecchio. Beautiful soaring interior Gothic arches were reportedly constructed by Baltimore ship builders.
Why then was the extraordinary City Market building, which took up an entire half block of Duke Street, torn down after only 84 years?
It was built as a replacement for market sheds standing in Center Square since colonial times. The City Market corporation purchased a former cemetery site from Christ Lutheran Church (graves were moved to Prospect Hill), and the new market building opened April 29, 1879. The $27,000 cost was raised through sale of $25 shares of stock.
The original building was 225 feet by 80 feet. The two short wings were expanded in 1889 and 1897, forming an equilateral cross shape. Storefront additions were added about 1910 on both sides of the main entrance, making a solid facade on Duke Street from Princess to Hope. The tower lost 15 feet to a lighting strike around 1913, but it still stood high over the city.
Ninety-three “renters of stalls and stands” signed the first rule book, promising to pay their rent promptly, clean at close of each market day, sell fish only in designated spaces and allow “no disorderly persons, dogs, vehicles or wagons” inside the building. Some stand holders probably rented several spaces for larger stands.
Stands were “leased annually by public auction for one year commencing the first Saturday of May” to the highest bidder over a fixed annual rate. No subleasing was allowed. An 1894 receipt shows $4.50 semi-annual rent for stall 292. Hours varied seasonally at first, but by 1907 City Market was open Tuesday and Fridays mornings and Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and evenings.
The building was also used for firemen’s festivals, sporting events and “walking matches,” where young couples walked around the vast floor while an orchestra played from the ornate balcony.
The market thrived for years–then came the changes of the 1950s and 1960s. Suburbs sprang up with shopping centers and supermarkets. You could hop into your car and pick up a week’s worth of groceries to stow into larger refrigerators instead of choosing fresh meats and produce several times a week at market.
A December 1953 Gazette and Daily article reported a possibly pending sale of City Market house, whose numbers of stand holders and customers were both declining. That eventually fell through, as did a 1957 Firestone Tire store option.
Then, in the fall of 1962, Gulf Oil Corporation presented serious plans to purchase nearly a quarter of the lot, a 125 feet by 125 feet parcel on the corner of Duke and Princess streets. They planned to build a three-bay service station, a “colonial-type building,” for $30,000. It would cost an estimated $17,000 to tear down City Market. The York City Zoning Board turned down Gulf’s special exception, but after a special hearing in July 1963, the court granted an exception. Part of the reason given was that the building was “dilapidated” and would cost $20,000 to fix and that the market was operating at a loss anyway. Only one person showed up to protest the gas station at the hearing, although 460 residents had signed a petition against it.
Events moved fast. City Market closed forever on October 5, 1963. A month later newspaper photos show a half-demolished building with the extraordinary hammer beams exposed to the sky. It reminded one reporter of a “bombed-out cathedral.” The tower did not come down quietly. A large chunk fell into Duke Street, taking out electric lines, light poles and parking meters.
About 75 percent of the remaining standholders formed the New City Market company and purchased the former Food Fair at 606 South George Street for somewhere between $35,000 and $55,000. Remodeling cost about $8,000, and the New City Market was opened the end of October 1963. By 1965 the market was open three days a week, including Friday evenings. A city directory for that year, however, lists only 28 vendors.
The 1969 city directory lists 14 vendors, and by November it was up for sale for an asking price of $69,500. One standholder said vendors were giving up tending market and getting factory jobs that paid more money. The civil unrest in York during the late 1960s also undoubtedly affected some people’s willingness to shop in town. The building was sold to the Judi-Sue clothing manufacturing company in December 1969, spelling an end to City Market. (The renovated building now showcases Junior Achievement Biztown.)