Detroit's forgotten farmers market could get second life at Greenfield Village

The Henry Ford is participating in Giving Tuesday to raise money to restore the Detroit Central Farmers Market

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For three decades, the expansive open-air pavilion, with its distinctive cast-iron columns, served as the main building of the Detroit Central Farmers Market, drawing farmers from what are now the western suburbs to sell their produce to the residents of a growing city.

Eventually the market, which stood in the shadow of the old city hall, became a victim of development and other pressures and closed in the early 1890s. The decorative pavilion was dismantled and relocated to Belle Isle. It was reconfigured as a riding stable, and later became the home for the horses of the Detroit Mounted Police before falling into disuse and disrepair.

It was nearly lost to history until The Henry Ford purchased and dismantled the building in 2003, saving it from demolition. Today, the historical institution is raising money to restore the pavilion as part of its agricultural and education programs at Greenfield Village.

 And, for the first time as part of a building restoration, The Henry Ford is participating in Giving Tuesday — or #GivingTuesday, an international movement to create a day of charitable giving the week after Thanksgiving — to raise money for the project. All donations made to thf.org/GivingTuesday will go toward installing the Detroit Central Farmers Market in the Village. Additionally, every donation will be matched by Don and Mary Kosch, longtime supporters of The Henry Ford, doubling the impact of each contribution.

So far, The Henry Ford has raised about $4.7 million of the $5 million estimated cost of the project and is looking to close the gap. The Henry Ford is hoping to reach a goal of $25,000 on Giving Tuesday. If fundraising is successful, construction on the project could begin in 2020.

“The Detroit Central Farmers Market reinforces our commitment to sustainability and preserving our nation’s agricultural history,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford in Dearborn. “With it, we can provide an inspiring environment where members of the agricultural community can once again gather, collaborate and innovate for the future.”

The market in downtown Detroit traces its roots to the 1840s. The pavilion, constructed in 1860, served as the prominent, central structure of the market, becoming known as the Vegetable Building. Farmers, gardeners, orchardists, and nurserymen rented stalls to sell their products. The Vegetable Building, which closed in 1892, is the only surviving building of those that comprised the market.

“Part of the decision to shut down Detroit Central Farmers Market was the rise of Eastern Market,” said Jim Johnson, director of Greenfield Village and curator of historic structures and landscapes, noting that there were also concerns associated with rotting vegetables and rats. “This is one of those buildings people sort of forgot about. It has a fascinating history and has had several different lives. It’s also architecturally interesting.”

The building was originally just shy of the length of a football field. Its construction consisted of a timber-frame roof truss and a slate roof. Forty-eight cast-iron columns, carved like stone, held the roof. The interior featured carved wooden ornamentation, tile floor and was gas lit. The shed was built for $5,312; the slate roof cost $1,500. The building opened in early April 1861, on the eve of the start of the Civil War. The building is currently housed in the storage facilities of The Henry Ford.

“At the time, it was meant to be architecturally appealing, not just a utilitarian building. It was functional but also decorative,” Johnson said, adding it’s rare for a timber-framed buildings to survive to the present in urban settings because of fires and development pressures. “The building had a real presence to it. It’s going to be quite beautiful when it’s up and gives us the opportunity to broaden our horizons and the stories can tell with it.”

Those stories will include the market’s role in the city of Detroit’s history. The market helped feed millions of Detroiters between 1861 and 1893. Much like farmers markets today, Detroit Central was a commercial center, a hub of entrepreneurship and a community gathering space. Johnson said the Village is still learning about the people who worked and shopped at the market. It was not only a source of fresh food but also a place to arrange work with laborers.

The building is also significant because it illustrates the city’s growth from a frontier fort and outpost to an important American city.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Office applauded The Henry Ford’s efforts to save the structure, describing the building as “significant and rare,” and a fitting addition to the collection of historic buildings at Greenfield Village.

“Generally we do not support or recommend the dismantling of an historic structure for reconstruction in a museum village setting, but this case is unusual,” said Brian Conway, state historic preservation officer with the agency. “Knowing that this building was scheduled for demolition, it is commendable that The Henry Ford had the vision to document and carefully dismantle it for future reconstruction at Greenfield Village.”

The pavilion will be reconstructed and scaled to fit its new home at Washington Boulevard and Junction Street, near the roundhouse, in the spot where an ice skating rink is created for the Village’s annual Holiday Nights. Besides serving as a place where visitors can learn about food, farming, healthy eating and agriculture innovation, the shed also is slated to be an active farmers market.

“Wewant to have programs in that space on a regular basis with opportunities for people to learn about agriculture, farming and food ... how it might be related to what’s happening currently,” Mooradian said. “Bringing to life a historic building like this is really ideal for us. It’s what we do throughout the village with our structures.”

The last historic building reassembled at Greenfield Village was the Detroit Toledo and Milwaukee Roundhouse, which was built in 1884 in Marshall, Michigan. The building was moved to the Village in the 1990s. Opened in 2000, the roundhouse services the locomotives and equipment of the village’s Weiser Railroad.

“New buildings are like blue moons in the Village,” Johnson said. “It’s quite an endeavor and expensive. It doesn’t happen very often.”

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