Pike Place Market (Seattle) -- Thumbnail History

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 7/29/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1602
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Seattle's Pike Place Market, with its familiar neon-lit clock and brass pig, is a renowned landmark, attracting millions of tourists and locals every year. Although its historic, cultural, and social value is rarely underestimated at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was not ever thus. Since the market was created in 1907, plans to raze it and replace it with more "modern" facilities have been repelled several times. Thanks to the efforts of architect-activists like Victor Steinbrueck and artists like Mark Tobey, the Market retains its character as an outlet for farmers, craftspeople, merchants, restaurateurs, and performers. The Main Market, with street-level stalls and a subterranean warren of shops, stretches in an L-shape from 1st Avenue and Pike Street (named for pioneer builder John Pike) to Pike Place and then along Pike Place to Virginia Street. Across Pike Place, the Sanitary Market and related buildings rise toward 1st Avenue.

A Clamorous Fiasco

On Saturday, August 17, 1907, thousands of women braved a summer rainstorm to converge on a newly built plank roadway fronting the Leland Hotel at 1st Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle. They quickly stripped bare a few farmers' carts loaded with produce. The Market's first day was a "clamorous fiasco," but the seed for Seattle's Public Farmers Market had been planted (Crowley, 78).

In the early 1900s, more than 3,000 farmers supplied the city with fresh fruits and vegetables. Their farms lay in the Rainier Valley, in the bottomlands of the Duwamish, Black, and White rivers just south of the city, and farther afield in the foothills of the Cascades and on Puget Sound islands. Recent immigrants – Germans, Italians, Chinese, and a growing number of Japanese and Filipinos – owned and tended nearly half the farms. All the farmers were at the mercy of commission houses lining Western Avenue's "Produce Row" near Pioneer Square. Farmers sold their crops to middlemen who then peddled them to retail grocers and restaurants for a generous markup. To spite this system, farmers and consumers had already begun rendezvousing informally along Western Avenue, when their complaints reached a receptive ear in newly elected city councilmember Thomas P. Revelle. 

A progressive Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt, Revelle discovered that in 1896 the city council had authorized but never followed through on a public farmers market. Backed by thundering editorials in The Seattle Times, Revelle persuaded his colleagues on August 5, 1907, to authorize the public market Monday through Saturday at Pike Place.

"Gold in Them Thar Groceries"

Real estate developer Frank Goodwin, just back from the Klondike with $50,000 in yellow ore, surveyed the soggy scene as shoppers and farmers mingled unprotected in the rain, and he saw "gold in them thar groceries" (Crowley, 78). Goodwin assembled a syndicate to build a permanent arcade (designed by his brother John, an engineer). The arcade opened on November 30, 1907. The Outlook Hotel and the Triangle Market were built the following year. Growing demand led the city in 1911 to extend the shelter (dubbed "Flower Row") north to the intersection at Virginia. The City hired John Winship as the first "Market Master" with the duty of running a daily lottery for assigning stalls to competing farmers and vendors.

In 1910 the Sanitary Public Market (Daniel Huntington) opened across Pike Place from the Main Market. It justified its name by barring horses from its interior. The adjacent Corner Market Building (Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger) opened in 1912. Two years later, Goodwin erected the vertical maze of the Fairley Building (Main Market), which today houses mostly retail shops. The maze was built over the steep bluff separating Western Avenue and Pike Place. Goodwin subsequently hired architect Andrew Willatsen to supervise improvements. He also took control of the former Bartell Building (1900) on the southwest corner of First and Pike, and renamed it the Economy Market. By 1917, the market's ensemble of core buildings was complete.

The Market was unfazed by Prohibition, when fruit juices became popular, especially when they fermented, but the automobile did pose a threat. Pike Place and Western Avenue became an important switchback, linking the upper downtown with the waterfront, but farmers' stalls and carts made it virtually impassable. The city council proposed relocating farmers' stalls to a new, underground complex at Westlake. In 1921, farmer Willard Soames formed the Associated Farmers of the Pike Place Market to oppose relocation. This group won by a single vote on the city council.

A "Narrow Cow Path"

Frank Goodwin and his nephew Arthur developed the Municipal Market Building on the water side of Western as a new stall area, linked to the main market by a sky bridge. They also leased part of the Pike Place sidewalk to the hated middlemen. This sparked a new controversy. In 1924, Seattle's flamboyant mayor, former dentist Edwin J. "Doc" Brown, responded to the dispute by dismissing Pike Place as a "narrow cow path" (Crowley, 80). He proposed a giant new public market structure (complete with civic auditorium and radio station) stretching west from the base of Pike Street to the waterfront. Brown's monstrous edifice repelled the public, and he lost the 1926 mayoral election to Bertha K. Landes (1868-1943). Brown's scheme was the first of many that would have effectively killed the Market in the name of saving it.

Around this time, Arthur Goodwin bought out his uncle's interest in Market operations (Frank held on to the real property). The Associated Farmers hired George Vandeveer, self-styled "Counsel for the Damned," to press their complaint that Goodwin was leasing public land to private middlemen (Crowley, 80). Ultimately, a judge ruled that all stalls – farmers' and middlemen's – were illegal on public sidewalks. The matter went all the way to the State Supreme Court and Legislature, but the crash of a different market in 1929 imposed a truce. As the Depression deepened, Seattle needed her public market more than ever before.

Seattle's Speaker's Corner

The area beneath the Main Market's neon sign and giant clock (ca. 1930) became Seattle's answer to London's Speaker's Corner, as socialists, communists, evangelists, technocrats, and just plain crackpots harangued the milling crowds. When Mark Tobey returned from England in 1938, he was drawn like a magnet to the Market's bubbling cauldron of races, classes, and creeds. He dedicated much of the next two decades to capturing it on paper and canvas while developing his "white writing" style (Crowley, 81).

But it was red ink that stained the Market's Depression-era finances, despite its popularity with cash-starved consumers. Arthur Goodwin had to sue his uncle Frank for unpaid property management fees, and he gradually lost control of the company to Giuseppe "Joe" Desimone, a Neapolitan immigrant who had quietly amassed a fortune farming in Seattle's South Park area and selling his produce at the Market. Barely literate, Desimone was nevertheless a savvy businessman and ingratiating politician who put his faith in real property, not stocks or speculation. By 1941 he owned all of Frank Goodwin's Market properties, and wrote a will prohibiting his heirs from ever selling them.

Pearl Harbor Hits the Market

The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor ignited long-smoldering resentments toward the Japanese American farmers who sold produce in perhaps four-fifths of the market stalls. Some muttered absurdities about "Axis saboteurs" trying to starve Seattle (Crowley, 81). Thanks to such war jitters, by April 1942, every Japanese American on the West Coast was forced to abandon house and home (and farm and school) and move inland to concentration camps. Scores of Market stalls stood empty, despite newspaper claims that business was unaffected because "white patrons like to buy from white farmers" (Crowley, 81).

Among those who stepped into the void at Pike Place Market was an enterprising businesswoman named Nellie Curtis. She catered to a different but no less basic need than food, namely, sex. Curtis took over a Japanese American family's lease on the Outlook Hotel at the foot of Pike Street and renamed it the LaSalle, possibly after the General Motors' luxury automobile. Her attempts at discretion were thwarted by as many as 1,000 sailors lining up at the door for a "ride." Curtis kept the motor running for nearly a decade before selling the hotel to new Japanese American owners, who, to the disappointment of many a lonely mariner, turned it into a legitimate hotel.

Desimone's benevolent dictatorship of the Market ended with his death in 1946, at which time his son Richard took over. The new regime faced fresh perils as suburban development and corporate agribusiness displaced truck farmers, and as supermarkets and consumer culture turned the Market into a social and economic anachronism. For artists such as Tobey and a young professor of architecture named Victor Steinbrueck, this only enhanced the Market's appeal. But in the view of the downtown establishment, the Market had become an eyesore and an obstacle to "progress."

The Parking Lot Idea

The first hint of things to come was a plan offered in 1950 by Harlan Edwards, the engineer husband of future City Councilmember Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969). His design would have replaced the Market with a giant parking garage. Nothing came of the proposal, but completion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in 1953 did almost as much damage by walling off the Market from the waterfront. The Market's economic and physical decay became obvious even to its champions. In 1956, the Pike Place Market Farmers' Association was established to try to attract new vendors and new customers. Its efforts secured a renewed public market lease from a skeptical city council in 1957, but the Association suffered a setback the following year when the Municipal Market Building burned down.

In 1963, under the banner of the Central Association, the downtown business establishment unveiled a plan to raze the old nest of buildings and alleys and replace them with terraced garages and high-rise office buildings. By 1964, the Pike Plaza Redevelopment Project was integrated into Seattle's first application for federal Urban Renewal funds. City Councilmember Wing Luke (1925-1965) quietly urged attorney Robert Ashley, Steinbrueck, and Allied Arts to organize a public effort to take over the market before the bulldozers shifted into high gear.

"An Honest Place in a Phony Time"

In September 1964, Ashley and Steinbrueck invited 60 sympathizers to a champagne breakfast at Lowell's Cafe in the Market to defend what architect Fred Bassetti called "an honest place in a phony time" (Crowley, 83). The new group called itself Friends of the Market and sold books, buttons, and shopping bags to raise funds. The support of influential Friends such as Mark Tobey stayed the wrecking ball temporarily. But the City's 1968 demolition of the old National Guard Armory on Western fed fears that the Market was next. Anxieties were not calmed when Mayor Dorm Braman denounced the Market as "a decadent, somnolent firetrap" (Crowley, 84).

The City scaled back its urban renewal ambitions, but from the Friends' point of view, the concessions were trivial. Steinbrueck then engineered a masterstroke of creative obstructionism when he convinced Washington's new Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, created by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, to approve a 17-acre Pike Place Market Historic District that would block use of federal funds for demolition. But Steinbrueck's victory was short-lived. The establishment counterattacked by persuading the advisory council to shrink the District to a mere 1.7 acres. In May 1971, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the green light for urban renewal.

The Friends then took to the streets with an initiative creating a seven-acre preservation zone, administered by a Market Historical Commission with broad powers for preserving not only the Market's physical structure but also its social and economic character. In three weeks, they collected 25,000 signatures to qualify the initiative for the November 2, 1971, ballot. Mayor Wes Uhlman and the city council offered an alternative for a smaller historic district and weaker enforcement, and this gained the support of some prominent Market merchants, such as deli owner Pete De Laurenti, who feared that the Market would stagnate without federal aid. The campaign became a war between competing Market saviors, but the voters sided with the Friends by 76,369 to 53,264.

A Fractious and Lively Peace

Now came the hard part. The City and the Friends of the Market quickly made their peace, but there was little agreement on what "preservation" meant in practical terms. Battles continued over plans for the larger 22-acre Urban Renewal District and the quasi-corporate Pike Place Market Public Development Authority (PDA), created in 1973 mainly to purchase and manage public buildings in the Market. A nonprofit Market Foundation was established to fund services for the area's low-income residents: a senior center, a clinic, and a food bank. Included in the mix was the Merchants Association and the Historical Commission. The interplay of these groups and their constituencies has created a lively, sometimes fractious urban politics.

The job of satisfying the Market's competing interests while rehabilitating it in accordance with the soaring rhetoric of Steinbrueck and his allies fell in 1974 to supervising architect George Bartholick. The preservation and improvement effort has since cost millions in public funds and private investment, and it will never really be finished. More than a century after its original planking, the Market attracts visitors and locals alike with its historic feel and yeasty mix of farmers, merchants, craftspeople, and restaurateurs. It continues to serve as a gateway for immigrants like the Hmong flower growers from Laos who arrived during and after the Vietnam war. And, for all the heartache and heat generated since 1971, the results are remarkably faithful to the vision expressed by Mark Tobey in the mid-twentieth century. The Pike Place Market is "still active, still varied, exciting and terribly important in the welter of overindustrialization" (Crowley, 85).


Alice Shorett and Murray Morgan, The Pike Place Market: People, Politics, and Produce (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1982); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1978).

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