Rebuilt Lexington Market would be latest transformation for 234-year-old landmark
When Revolutionary War general John Eager Howard donated land for a market on the western outskirts of Baltimore in 1782, it was intended as a meeting point for residents of the young city and rural farmers.
Since then, what became known as Lexington Market has undergone repeated metamorphoses as its purpose shifted with a changing city. Once an open-air assemblage of stalls, most of its current structure was built after a 1949 fire destroyed its shed.
Plans city officials announced Friday to tear down the cavernous brick building and replace it with a brighter glass-and-metal facility represent the next phase of its life, said Bill Devine, whose family has owned and operated Faidley Seafood at the market for 128 years.
A gleaming new building could help bring back patrons who have abandoned the market — and the city — for the suburbs since the 1960s, the 85-year-old said.
“I think it would because of the newness, and it would probably be good,” Devine said. “I hope they do it so we can be here another 128 years.”
Market officials hope that is the case. They are designing the facility to eliminate duplication of the fast-food stalls and to discourage the drug dealing, loitering and panhandling that many have come to associate with the area around the market.
Robert Thomas, executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., acknowledged that the new building alone won’t revitalize the market. But he said that the problems afflicting it can be rooted out and that the market can be transformed once again.
“We are in the location where we are, and the area’s issues have been to one extent or another conferred upon the market,” he said. “We are in a position to work in concert with lots of other partners … to make the area considerably more comfortable for those who would want to come to the market existing and new.”
When Howard first established the market, it was a place where farmers from Reisterstown and Towson could sell their turkeys, butter and vegetables to residents of a city still clustered around the harbor, said Patricia Schultheis, author of “Baltimore’s Lexington Market.”
In 1803, the first shed was built to cover the market, which was then named Lexington Market. By 1925, there were more than 1,000 stalls, just blocks from four major department stores along the bustling Howard Street shopping corridor. The core of what is today’s market opened in 1952.
But in the decades after that, the exodus of wealthy, largely white city residents to the suburbs and the advent of supermarkets changed the market as they changed the city. There was less of a need for the fresh poultry, beef and vegetables, and in the late 1960s, shops like Faidley’s first began cooking food products on the premises.
“The reason for all of those [goods] being here evaporated,” Devine said. “It became nothing but a big lunch room.”
Market organizers have sought to lure shoppers back with events like a mobile Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit, fashion shows and “Light Up Lexington,” a regular event featuring local restaurants and live music.
They have worked to counter what they call misperceptions that the market is just a hub of fast food — there are five produce stands, many selling locally grown produce, and the Farm Alliance of Baltimore is a current pop-up tenant, said Stacey Pack, the market’s manager.
But there is only so much market managers say they can do to combat crime and loitering in a building with many entrances and dark corners.
The new building is being designed to be brighter, with fewer and wider aisles, and fewer entrances, officials said.
And they want it to sell a more diverse menu, from food entrepreneurs looking to make, for example, the city’s best empanada or barbecue, Pack said.
Historians say the “locavore” movement toward locally grown and produced food could help the market return to its roots. But they said the city still must address the neglect and disinvestment that surrounds the market and contributes to the crime and drug dealing that sometimes pervade it.
“A new building in and of itself will not solve that problem,” Schultheis said. “Right now they happen to be linked together, but they do not have to be that way.”
Markets around the country, such as Pike Place Market in Seattle or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, have made similar successful adaptations to cultural shifts, adding evening and Sunday hours or upscale, niche merchants, said Jay Brodie, former president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
Lexington Market could do well to follow suit, he said, but that carries a risk of alienating the West Baltimore residents who still use it for regular grocery shopping.
“You don’t want to lose those people,” he said. “You want to broaden the customer base again.”
Given the many changes to the market over the years, a new market would not erase its history, said Johns W. Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage.
“The configuration and the building itself is less important than the site,” he said. “The current building itself is far less important than the site and representing the best of Baltimore.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.