The Best Short History of the Pike Place Market
~ Courtesy of Braiden Rex-Johnson

It was unseasonably rainy on the evening of August 16, 1907, and August 17th didn’t dawn much better. Rain soaked the cobbled and planked streets of Seattle and turned unpaved roadways into little more than muddy trails.

As H. O. Blanchard, a farmer from Renton, wheeled his wagon over the planks of Western Avenue and up onto Pike Place, he didn’t know what would await him – who, if anyone, would be waiting to buy his fresh produce at the newly designated public market, begun as an experiment by the Seattle City Council because both farmers and consumers were angry over high food prices.

H. O. was not to be disappointed. About 50 shoppers, most of them women, elbowed aside the single policeman stationed to maintain order, stampeded the farmer’s wagon, and bought out his entire load before he could even pull to the curb. The following Saturday the crowds were again willing and eager to buy, and the 70 wagons parked on Pike Place sold out their goods within hours. Both Seattle housewives and area farmers embraced the arrangement that provided direct contact between consumer and producer, and, over the years, the Pike Place Market became a city institution.

Pike Place Market, Then & Now

Pike Place Market, “Then & Now” (Edmond Lowe Photography)

From Heyday to Losing Its Way

It reached its heyday during the 1930s, when, during one year, more than 600 farmers were issued permits to sell. Throughout the Depression, the Market provided a welcoming environment to the city’s jobless, as well as inexpensive food for the hungry.

During the 1940s, when the Japanese farmers were interned and many other growers went to work in defense plants, the Market lost nearly half its independent farmer population. Acres of prime farmland were claimed by industry, people moved to the suburbs, and the local supermarket became an accepted convenience. Even the Market’s buildings crumbled from neglect; nevertheless, a few hearty farmers hung on and the neighborhood refused to die.

Citizen Activism

In the 1960s, developers planned to demolish the sagging buildings and put up office and apartment towers on the prime city acreage. But a grassroots citizens’ group led by architect and community leader Victor Steinbrueck formed an organization called the Friends of the Market to save the beloved landmark. An initiative was put on the ballot on November 2,1971, and the people of Seattle responded by voting to make the Market an historical district where uses, as well as designs, were preserved.

Operating Guidelines Strengthened

Strict guidelines were written by the Market Historical Commission, nicknamed “the conscience of the Market.” According to The Pike Place Market: People, Politics, and Produce, the Commission agreed to always consider the following when evaluating applications for use or development:

1. The Market is a place for the farmer to sell his produce.

2. The Market is a place for the sale of every kind of food product.

3. The Market is a place where citizens in the low and moderate income groups can find food, goods and services, and residences.

4. 4.The Market is and will always be a place with the flavor of a widely varied shopping area. The Commission encouraged 17 specific types of activity, including person-to-person sales; those offering hard-to-find goods; those involving light manufacturing; those catering particularly to the pedestrian; those offering goods for sale in a natural state, as distinguished from prepackaged goods; and those bringing together people of all backgrounds, enriching the quality of life, or relating to historical Market uses or activities.

The seven-acre historical district (which later grew to nine acres) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and, in June 1973, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) was mandated by the state to manage the Market in the public’s interest. The Authority’s mission was and is to purchase, rehabilitate, own, and manage property in the Pike Place Public Market. Over a 15-year period, the PDA renovated or reconstructed every building within the Market Historical District with the help of federal urban-renewal funds and with the philosophy that “it is generally better to preserve than to repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to reconstruct.”

Market Spirit Preserved

As it was originally built, the Market was designed to emphasize the product, not the architecture, and that remains true to this day. Its unpretentious brick, concrete, and timber structures, marquees, open stalls and tables, cast-iron columns, suspended metal lighting fixtures, and tile floors look much as they did during earlier times. The spirit of the old Market has been preserved.

An example of innovative renovation occurred in the early 1980s, when the Market needed a new floor but did not have the necessary funds. For each $35 donation, Market supporters could have their name or message imprinted on a tile. Today, approximately 46,500 tiles cover the floor in the Main and North Arcades.

The consecutive numbers along the outside edge of the walkway are row markers to help locate specific tiles. Look for Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s tiles in rows 351 and 352 (just to the south of City Fish), or the tiles imprinted with the prime numbers from one to 100, given by a wife in honor of her mathematician husband (in row 38 in front of DeLaurenti’s west entrance).

Market Withstands Unexpected Threats

A less happy chapter in the Market’s long history occurred during the early 1990s, when a group of New York City investors who had bought tax benefits on the Market’s buildings in the early 1980s claimed they owned and could control the buildings after the tax advantages were abolished in the late 1980s. After battling in both Washington state and New York courts, the PDA and citizens’ groups wrestled control from the investors after agreeing to a $2.25 million settlement, and safeguards were put in place so nothing similar could endanger the Market again.

As the 20th century drew to a close and the new millennium dawned, outside forces threatened the Market more than anything internal. These external events included violent riots during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, a break in a 20-inch water main that sent 1.5 million gallons of water cascading through the lower portion of the Market (temporarily closing the Main and North Arcades), and the Nisqually Quake, which rattled the old buildings with a lively 6.8 magnitude. Nonetheless, the Market weathered all these storms and continues to maintain its authentic, quirky personality as it looks steadfastly toward the future.

Click here for the Pike Place Market website.

The best short history of the Pike Place Market is written by Braiden Rex-Johnson, a Friend of the Market. The above entry is from her 2003 edition of the popular “Pike Place Market Cookbook,” published by Seattle’s Sasquatch Books. This entry is used with permission of the author whose current activities can be followed on her blog: