The Market Center Historic District is an approximately 24 block area in downtown Baltimore that includes buildings associated with the development of the area as Baltimore's historic retail district. The area evolved from an early 19th century neighborhood of urban rowhouses to a premiere shopping district featuring large department stores, grand theaters, and major chain stores. The diverse size, style, scale, and types of structures within the district reflect its residential origins and evolution as a downtown retail center.
The brick rowhouses, which date from ca. 1820s through the late 19th century, late 19th century churches, and schools reveal the mix of residential and commercial use that characterized urban land use until the early 20th century. The district also includes a noteworthy collection of 19th century commercial buildings, including brownstones and structures with cast iron fronts, which testify to the prosperity of Baltimore's merchant class. The presence of larger structures like department stores and national chain stores on Howard and Lexington Streets emphasizes the historic prominence of these two streets and changing retail practice in the decades before World War I.
The vitality of the area spawned additional enterprises, resulting in hotels and theaters as well as subsidiary buildings like clubs, banks, fire stations, a police station, and a bus station that supported activity in the area. The district also contains office buildings and warehouses as well and loft buildings associated with Baltimore's wholesale clothing manufacturers. Intrusions in the district include mid-20th century high rise garages and Lexington Market as well as faddish, late 20th century streetscape improvements like the Lexington Street pedestrian mall and overscale light fixtures on Lexington Street and Howard Street.
The variety of building types yields an equally rich vocabulary of architectural styles ranging from discreet Federal and Italianate ornament on rowhouses to the sober Romanesque Revival and Classical Revival styles in banks. Purpose-built commercial and retail structures adopted the more exuberant and eclectic versions of fashionable style resulting in grand statements of Italianate, Italian Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival, Art Deco, and Streamline Moderne. Hotels and theaters went over the top, producing baroque combinations of French and Italian renaissance revival styles. In keeping with continuous retail use of the area, many of the 1st and 2nd floor storefronts have been altered over the years.
The street facades of numerous buildings were updated with stucco, metal, and tile cladding in the late 20th century. None of these changes affect the overall form and scale of the buildings. The district retains sufficient integrity to convey its architectural character and historic associations.
The Market Center Historic District comprises Baltimore's historic retail core. Spurred by the activity generated by Lexington Market in the early 19th century, the area evolved from a small-scale urban residential neighborhood into the city's premiere, early 20th century shopping district. The increasing importance of the automobile and growth of the outlying shopping areas led to the slow decline of the area's retailing following World War II.
The locally significant Market Center Historic District meets National Register Criterion A because it represents Baltimore's retail growth and development from ca. 1820 to 1945. The rowhouses, small commercial buildings, churches, schools, hotels, department stores, and chain stores record the evolution of the city over a 100 year period. The Market Center Historic District also meets Criterion C because of the variety of architectural styles and building types represented in the historic district and for the work of locally important architects within the historic district boundaries. Baldwin and Pennington, Joseph E. Sperry, Robert Cary Long, Jr., and Charles E. Cassell all designed buildings in the district.
While major late 20th century buildings intrude on the historic scale and architectural fabric of the historic districts, many of these intrusions are associated with Lexington Market and the continuation of its historic use as a vital, urban market. Virtually all of the buildings presently in commercial use display 1st and 2nd floor storefront alterations typical of the retail evolution of urban buildings. These alterations do not impair the integrity of the individual buildings or the overall integrity of the historic district.