19th century Detroit market that once stood downtown opens in Greenfield Village

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Before there was Eastern Market, there was Detroit Central Market.

Opened in 1861 near what is now Campus Martius and Cadillac Square, the market with ornate Bavarian-inspired trim was a downtown gathering spot, a place where Detroiters could find dozens of vendors selling everything from vegetables and honey to eggs and poultry. It also was the site of dances and other social events. 

But after being dismantled in the late 19th century and moved to Belle Isle, the market eventually fell into serious disrepair and was nearly demolished until The Henry Ford stepped in and purchased it for $1 in 2003. 

Greenfield Village’s newest building, Detroit Central Market, in Dearborn, April 13, 2022.

Now, after roughly $2 million in restoration work, Detroit Central Market is finally reopening this weekend in its new home: Greenfield Village. The village kicks off its 2022 season on Friday for members and Saturday to the general public.

"This was an important, really symbolic, (structure) that was put up to provide a place for the people of Detroit to buy their food," said Jim Johnson, Greenfield Village's director.

The market, which looks much the way it did 161 years ago, still features 80% of its original materials though some modifications had to be made to bring it up to code. It's the first new (but old) structure to open at Greenfield Village since 2000. The last building to open, one of roughly 80 there, was the Detroit, Toledo, and Milwaukee Roundhouse. 

Detroit Central Market — also called the Vegetable Shed or City Hall Market — was once the size of a football field and operated from 1861 until 1893 in Detroit. At one point, it was one of three markets in the city, including Eastern Market, which opened in 1891, and Western Market, which sold hay.

Johnson said the building, which was commissioned by the city of Detroit and designed by architect John H. Schaefer, was unique in that it featured timber framing supported by more than a dozen cast iron columns.

Jim Johnson, director of Greenfield Village, and the curator of historic structures and landscapes, stands inside the museum’s newest building, Detroit Central Market, in Dearborn, April 13, 2022.

"This is a marrying of the old technology that was starting to fade, the timber framing" and the cast iron columns, said Johnson.

When it opened, the Detroit Central Market had a tile floor, gas lamps, slate roof and more than a dozen cast iron columns. Tall ladders allowed workers to climb up into the market's rafters to turn the gas lamps on and off.

In its heyday, Johnson estimates more than 90 vendors would've been at the market, selling their wares inside. It would've been filled with horses, the primary transportation at the time, and a fountain in the middle for them to get water.

"Saturday nights at the market were a big social event," he said. "There was food, there were magicians, there were menagerie, little circus acts. You could pay a nickel and look through some guy's telescope."

Greenfield Village’s newest building, Detroit Central Market, in Dearborn, April 13, 2022.

But after the building was moved to Belle Isle, where it was used as a shelter and later horse stables, the building was modified considerably. Johnson said he and his team had to rely on historic photos to figure out what the market looked like originally.

There was a lot of "stripping back layer after layer and figuring out what went where," he said. "There were a lot of missing pieces."

Today, all the decorative Bavarian-inspired trim and millwork has been reproduced using scans and special machinery.

Another restoration challenge, Johnson said, was figuring out to how to make the market as structurally sound as possible. To do that, several newer cast iron beams were installed and are burrowed 6 feet below the surface.

On Thursday, construction crews continued to strengthen those newer cast iron columns, applying cement around the bases.

Mike Russo, left, and Nico Warnack, of Padula construction, work on one of the cast iron pillars inside Greenfield Village’s newest building, Detroit Central Market, in Dearborn, April 13, 2022.

Even though the market only functioned for 30 years downtown, it's still "a wonderful, symbolic coming together of the city shifting from its agricultural roots to what would be come, by the 1860s, its industrial burgeoning," said Johnson. 

Eventually, Johnson said the village hopes to use it similarly to how it was used in its heyday, with vendors and scheduled markets, some during Greenfield Village's Holiday Nights or Hallowe'en. There are a lot of possibilities, he said.

"It's endless," he said.


Detroit Central Market

Opens this weekend at Greenfield Village, 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn.

Operated as a large market with vendors and stalls in the middle of downtown Detroit from 1861 until 1893.

Go to www.thehenryford.org/visit/greenfield-village/detroit-central-market.