On January 6, 1931, Washington was a measurably different city than on the final day of the previous year. One hundred twenty-five years after its founding, the only sounds at the Center Market were those of salvagers tearing out fittings and equipment. Within the year, the market building at the corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW would be cleared for the new National Archives.


Throughout the winter of 1930, controversy about the demolition of the city's central produce, meat, and dairy market had swirled against the deepening gloom of the depression. Newspapers speculated about a plague of suddenly homeless rats sweeping through downtown.Some reports suggested that the market's closing would cast 500 to 1,000 workers into the dismal job market.

Early in November, a bookkeeper at a hotel supply firm in the market perhaps took the uncertain situation very much to heart. On hearing that his services were no longer required, thirty-one year old George Rosson told a co-worker “Well, I guess you won’t be bothering with me much longer”, pulled a revolver from a desk, and shot himself in the head.

In early 1931, as 125 workers demolished the Adolph Cluss-designed building that had housed the market since 1880, a reporter noted that “the old slow-going red-brick Washington… is rapidly giving way to the classic white stone national capital that L’Enfant envisioned”.


By May, ads in the Washington Post traced the paths of the displaced merchants. Some had migrated to the O Street or Eastern Market, to Water Street SW, or to the new Washington Terminal Market near Florida and New York Avenues NE. Others moved to the ancient Northern Liberties Market in 1000 block of Fifth Street NW or to smaller nearby commercial buildings. However some former tenants stayed in the old neighborhood.

Morris Wittlin's butchershop and Samuel Deckelbaum's Washington Supply Market had long been Center Market businesses. Wittlin had entered the wholesale-retail meat business in 1909. Deckelbaum, who like Wittlin had emigrated from Russia circa 1904, came to Washington from Baltimore in 1918 to become secretary-treasurer of the Washington Supply Market. After the Center Market closed, Wittlin’s Meat Market advertised “courteous service” at 606 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a few doors from the Washington Supply Market's new location at 618 Pennsylvania.

ABOVE: The O Street Market collapsed under heavy snow in 2003.

BELOW: The Northern Liberties Market


Wittlin and Decklebaum's loyalty to their old neighborhood was short-lived. So many of their old Center Market neighbors had relocated to the Northern Liberties Market that that establishment had changed its name to the "New Center Market". The Northern Liberties building, which had stood at the corner of Fifth and K Streets NW since the 1880s, was surrounded by small commercial buildings and houses, including frame structures from the time of the Civil War.

On June 25, 1931 Wittlin and Deckelbaum applied for a permit to raze the strip of two brick and three wooden buildings that stretched from 922 Fifth around the corner to 502 K Street NW. A week later, Wittlin and Deckelbaum filed for a permit to fill this site with a brick-covered concrete and limestone building containing five storefronts and an office loft.


Between the banner year of 1927 and the end of 1931, the value of private construction in the District had fallen a staggering 39% and the number of business buildings constructed had declined by 32%. At a time when many well-established architects were hard up for commissions, Wittlin and Deckelbaum turned to a less-than- prominent practitioner for what proved to be an audacious building.

A.J.S. Atkinson designed a handful of stores and dwellings before becoming a city building inspector around the time of World War I. His commissions seemed to improve after he married the daughter of the municipal architect in 1925. During the mid-1920s, he designed a quartet of small apartment houses near Dupont Circle as well as several houses, stores, and a court building. In a career as an independent architect that lasted until World War II, he is credited with only about 20 buildings. However, his home for Wittlin Beef and Washington Supply Markets was both innovative and beautiful.


In the pre-self service era, establishments like this Center Market produce stall often did not mark prices on individual items.

The Washington Post would not use the words “super market” to describe a Washington, DC establishment until 1933, when the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened a store at 710-712 Eleventh Street NW. However, by 1931, the" self-service retail market that sells foods, convenience goods, and household merchandise arranged in open mass display" had already been pioneered by such chains as Piggly-Wiggly Stores in the south and the King Kullen Markets in New York City.

Besides being cheaper, supermarkets styled themselves as “scientific” and “hygienic”. They were brightly lit, especially in comparison to the dim and often dingy corner grocery, airy and spacious, and added such modern marvels as cellophane-wrapped produce lying on beds of clean fresh ice.


Atkinson ’s design partook of the supermarket aesthetic with its clean lines, bright colors, and large windows, especially when contrasted with the dim galleries and dark Victorian bulk of the New Center Market across the intersection. His building also advertised its use the latest technology.

In a Washington Post interview, Atkinson's collaborator, builder-engineer Morris Gumenick, extoled the new building's “ultra-modern” features such as central electric refrigeration, glass-enclosed, temperature controlled meat cutting sector, and the “total elimination of vermin”. Gumenick evoked the supermarket aesthetic by remarking “we have seen to it that there shall be plenty of light and fresh air. This is a primary consideration wherever food is handled.” He somewhat immodestly concluded “I have created a job well-done. The plant is made so as to be scientifically perfect.”

On April 29, 1932, most of page 9 of the Washington Post was occupied by a display ad proclaiming the opening of “A Modern Food Center” at the southwest corner of Fifth and K Streets NW. Below a photograph of the new building and the announcement of a $25.00 prize for the best building name.

The winner of the $25.00 prize was never announced and Wittlin and Deckelbaum’s building never had an official name. However, as 1933, the worst year of the depression, turned to 1934, the building was near full occupancy. Besides the Washington Supply Market and Wittlin Beef companies, its early tenants included the Albert Briggs Wholesale Meat Company, the Mendolson-Selfon meat and grocery firm, and Engineers Local 67 in the upstairs offices.


Atkinson's building features such art deco elements as the corner tower pediment and geometric medallions just below the tower roofline and at the window corners. He also incorporated the tile roof and small towers that delineate each original storefront from the southern California architectural vocabulary of the day .

But what truely distinguishes Atkinson's building is its color palatte, from the varigated brick that ranges from orange to dark brown and the tile roof, whose dominanent orange is punctuated with randomly-placed tiles of lemon yellow, apple green, and deep black.


Many admirers are surprised to learn that Atkinson's building was essentially built to market meat. They envision it as a showroom for exotic 1930s automobiles, something like the Sunset Strip dealership where Clark Gable might have picked up a Packard roadster.

Samuel Decklebaum died in 1934 and the Wittlin Beef Company declared bankruptcy in 1938. However, Wittlin and Decklebaum's building has continued to be fully tenented even with the severe economic decline of the neighborhood after World War II. In no small part, this is due to the beauty and vividness of Atkinson's design.


The vitality and color of Atkinson's building contrast with its more conventional neighbors on the east side of Fifth Street. The Victorian building at the corner of K Street originally housed a flour and feedstore. Its one story neighbors include a video store that was built as a poultry market in the mid-1930s and a meat market built in 1946.