Cleveland and Seattle both have centuries-old indoor markets. Why doesn’t Chicago?

Chicago had multiple indoor markets in the 1800s, but they’ve all since disappeared. Here’s what we know about them.

Cleveland’s West Side Market
Photo courtesy of the West Side Market
Cleveland’s West Side Market
Photo courtesy of the West Side Market

Cleveland and Seattle both have centuries-old indoor markets. Why doesn’t Chicago?

Chicago had multiple indoor markets in the 1800s, but they’ve all since disappeared. Here’s what we know about them.

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During the summer and fall, there are bustling farmers markets in neighborhoods across Chicago. The markets sell everything from fresh produce grown on Midwestern farms to specialty items like honey, jams and pastries. But as the weather gets chillier, these outdoor markets won’t fill the parks or parking lots around the city. Some, like Green City Market, often move inside for the winter, but most close for the entire season.

Butcher at the West Side Market
Butcher at the West Side Market in Cleveland. Photo courtesy of the West Side Market.

So did Chicago ever have an indoor public market that would run all year round; a historic one like Pike Place Market in Seattle or Cleveland’s West Side Market? That’s what Curious City listener Paul Grunwald wondered.

Grunwald, who is Polish, used to live in Cleveland and remembers heading to the West Side Market, which has been open since 1912, to buy sausages and other food items that would remind him of home in Europe. The shopping experience reminded him of what it’s like to shop for food in Europe, he said, where it’s common to shop daily for fresh produce and meat in indoor markets that have been open for a century, sometimes even longer.

Chicago has the Chicago French Market inside Ogilvie Transportation Center, which opened in 2009, many seasonal farmers markets and historic outdoor markets like Maxwell Street Market and South Water Street Market. But the city doesn’t have an indoor market that’s been around for more than a hundred years.

There were several indoor markets built in the mid-1800s. Some of them burned down, and others were closed by the city – and it’s not entirely clear why. But one thing is certain: it’s still a tough business to run a year-round indoor market in Chicago.

Merchant supervising unloading of truck at produce market
Commission merchant supervising unloading of truck at produce market. Library of Congress

Chicago’s early indoor markets

In the mid-1800s, Chicago had several indoor public markets. The first one, located on State Street between Lake and Randolph, was known as State Street Market Hall. Designed by architect John M. Van Osdel, it featured 32 stalls for food vendors on the building’s first floor. Built in 1848, it served as both a market and city hall, with rooms on the second floor for “government functions.” And it was the city that paid for its construction. The city also enacted a series of regulations to make sure the market was an economic success — for example, other places in Chicago were forbidden from selling beef and produce during the market’s hours of operation.

Since the city’s population was growing quickly, the city met demand by building more indoor markets, including North Market Hall, Market Street Hall and West Side Market Hall. North Market Hall was between Clark and Dearborn on Hubbard Street, which was called Michigan Street at the time. Market Street Hall and West Side Market Hall were on different sides of the south branch of the Chicago River, and when these two markets were built, they were meant to serve what was known as Chicago’s West Division.

State Street Market Hall and Market Street Hall were the first to be torn down, and like many other buildings, North Market Hall burned down during the Chicago Fire. The city demolished West Side Market Hall in 1872, although this public market did survive the fire.

It’s not entirely clear why the city government closed these markets. According to a 2015 Commission of Chicago Landmarks’ report on the Fulton-Randolph Market District, “The reason for the demise of the city’s municipal market halls is a matter of speculation. Some sources suggest that price-fixing and sanitation became problems despite city regulations, while others suggest that the buildings, particularly the State Street Market and West Market Hall, caused traffic congestion due to their mid-street locations.”

Although Chicago’s indoor public markets didn’t take off, the city became known as a hub for wholesale markets and outdoor markets like Maxwell Street Market and South Water Street Market.

Exterior of Pullman Market Hall
The exterior of Pullman Market Hall.

Pullman Market Hall Opens in 1882

Though it didn’t serve nearly as many people as the earlier indoor markets like State Street Market, Pullman Market Hall served the same dual purpose of being a place to shop and a community center. George Pullman built the market in 1882 to serve employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in the town of Pullman, although you didn’t have to be an employee to shop there.

The building was designed by architect Spencer Beeman. While “market” is in its name, it was more than just a place to buy meat and produce, although that was a key function.

“There were 16 stalls on the first floor that were leased out to various businesses. Those included bakers, butchers, grocers, a pharmacy, ice cream, fresh produce, a whole variety of perishable goods,” said Mike Shymanksi, former president of the Pullman Historic Foundation.

The second floor was a space for the community and also served as a dance hall.

Pullman Market Hall
Pullman Market Hall building exterior. Courtesy Julian Jackson
According to Shymanski, Pullman Market Hall first burned down less than a year before the 1893 Columbian Exposition, when a baker spilled lard, which caught on fire. Since the market was in the middle of a busy intersection, it was rebuilt. Pullman’s new market was designed by the same architect, but Beeman’s style changed and the market’s design evolved from Queen Anne style architecture to Romanesque.

Later, Pullman Market Hall was sold to private business owners, but the space was still open for selling produce and groceries. In the 1930s, another fire burned the second level, and Market Hall was reduced to one story. Still, there was a grocery store in the one story of the building along with a bar and laundromat, Shymanski explained. The interior of the building was completely destroyed in another fire in the 1970s, and the Pullman Historical Foundation now owns the building, and though there’s nothing inside the structure, its exterior is intact.

As for its future, the Pullman Historical Foundation is hoping to eventually restore the building and one possible option includes a new market inside.

“It requires a lot of sound business planning and business judgment to successfully redevelop things like a market hall,” Shymanski said. “With the National Monument opening, there’s potential for more support for the rehabilitation and construction of Market Hall.”

The Chicago French Market
Customers at the Chicago French Market. Photo courtesy of the Chicago French Market.

The Chicago French Market nods to a European tradition

While there might not be an indoor market that’s been around for more than a century, Chicago does have one market where you can get produce and specialty foods all year round. In 2009, the Bensidoun family opened the Chicago French Market inside Ogilvie Transportation Center. While it’s modeled after a European-style market, it isn’t exactly the same. That’s because it’s had to make some changes and adapt since it first opened, said Leslie Cahill, the market’s general manager.

“When we opened up the Chicago French Market, the thought was that it would be a public market in that people would come in and buy fish, meat and bread, and they would go home and cook it,” Cahill said. The market doesn’t even have freezers since the original plan was to sell fresh foods.

But Cahill said they quickly realized that people going in and out of the train station weren’t picking up fresh produce or meat while commuting. So they needed to change their model.

City Fresh, the vendor that originally sold fresh fish and meat, switched over to prepackaged foods. And the market shifted its focus to more businesses that would offer items for lunch, where customers can get a prepared meal that’s a little more upscale than fast food. Despite its name, not all of the vendors serve French or even European foods. Anyone who goes to the Chicago French Market will also find Filipino cuisine, Argentine-style empanadas or even fresh Cuban bread. There’s also a grocery store: City Fresh Market.

City Fresh Market stall
The City Fresh Market stall at the Chicago French Market. Photo courtesy of the Chicago French Market.

Though the Chicago French Market was able to adapt, the indoor market has proven to be a tough business for others. Part of Green City Market’s plan since it was founded in 1999 was to have an indoor market, executive director Mandy Moody explained.

“The challenge has been in really figuring out a way to operate a year-round market that serves our farmers really well,” Moody said.

Moody said it’s also been hard to find an affordable space that’s accessible by public transit.

And Cahill said there just isn’t the same kind of demand in Chicago for a large indoor European style market.

“It’s a cultural thing in that we are just not conditioned in this Chicagoland area to go buy [fresh] food on a daily basis,” Cahill said. “If our culture was different here, we would have a thriving public market that people would come to every day.”

Sophia Lo is Curious City’s multimedia intern. Follow her @sophiamaylo.