The Municipal Market House
Four years after the Borough of South Bethlehem was incorporated, President Ulysses S. Grant decided to run for a second term in 1869. At odds with his political policies, anti-Grant Democrats and liberal Republicans nominated New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley as their presidential candidate.
In 1872, Greeley supporters held presidential campaign meetings in “The Wigwam,” a 40-by-115-foot, one-story wooden frame structure, which they constructed on the corner lot flanked by E. Third, Birch (now Adams) and Mechanic Sts. in South Bethlehem.
On Nov. 29, 1872, before the electoral college convened, Horace Greeley died while in the care of his personal physician. President Grant won a second term.
Without any further use of the “Wigwam,” the building was sold in 1874 at auction for $150 ($3,200 in todays money). Those who invested in the building had recently formed the South Bethlehem Market Company, and renamed the “Wigwam” the Market House. Open early on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, the first Market House featured a middle aisle paved in brick that ran the length of the building from E. Third to Mechanic Sts. Farmers and vendors drove off the streets and parked alongside the Market House, where their horse-drawn wagons were unloaded. Exterior doors gave them access to stands in partitioned stalls, where they sold meats, poultry and fresh produce.
In 1878, the Borough leased the building from the South Bethlehem Market Company at an annual fee of $100. The Company paid taxes on the property and water use. When the building lease expired in 1881, the Borough purchased the wooden Market House for $1,000 ($23,900 today). Though business continued as usual, the Borough enacted an ordinance “pertaining to the Market House” that was passed by the town council. This meant the Borough controlled all activities in and around the market—and while it protected the consumer, it ultimately helped the Borough earn revenue. Five years later, the Borough purchased the Market House and the property outright.
In 1885, through the General Borough Law of South Bethlehem, the town council repealed the earlier ordinance pertaining to the public market and subsequent amendments. Revised by Borough solicitor, J. Davis Brodhead, the new ordinance was enforced by the Market House Committee. The Market Ordinance permitted the Market House to continue its existence within the wooden structure at E. Third and Birch (now Adams) streets. The Market House remained open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 5 a.m. until 9 a.m. (later extended until noon). The ordinance allowed farmers and vendors to sell meat, poultry, fish, and produce, or whatever for domestic consumption. A Borough council clerk was appointed to oversee the removal of waste, rubbish and stale produce, tainted meats or fish in and around the Market House during and after market days. The clerk’s inspection also assured accuracy of weights and measures, which prevented vendors from cheating patrons.
Outside the Market House, the ordinance curtailed competition. It prohibited peddlers or vendors to sell goods in neighborhoods when the market was open. The ordinance also applied to non-Borough residents, who were prohibited to peddle or hawk any breads, cakes, pretzels, cloth, medicines, jewelry, coal oil, tin ware or like merchandise from door to door or upon public streets, alleys or highways—unless a license was procured from the chief burgess. The license was issued on a monthly basis and the cost was deemed by city council. Violators were fined.
The Market House Committee levied any number of fines to anyone in violation of the ordinance. The committee also had the power to fix and change the rental terms and rates in the market stalls. Those who violated the Market Ordinance faced prosecution by authority of constables or Borough police.
As the population of South Bethlehem increased, the Market House proved inadequate with the volume of vendors and patrons. In 1890, the Borough took action. The old wooden Market House was razed and the adjoining lot was purchased. The Borough hired architect A.W. Leh to design, and Bethlehem contractor Josiah R. Wilt to build a substantial three-story brick Municipal Market House at a cost of $40,000.
Incorporated within the northwest corner of the Market House, architect Leh designed a tall square tower, visible from all corners of the Borough. On the first floor, the walls of the Market room were covered with white ceramic tiles. Electric light fixtures suspended from the ceiling and tall, wide arched windows illuminated the 136 stalls, rented semi-annually. This brought the Borough $5,000 in revenue.
The second floor contained offices, including that of the mayor, the police station and borough officials; the third floor was set aside for use by the public for meetings. The stone basement contained the lock-up (jail) and the boiler room. In all, the new structure offered vendors, patrons and office workers modern electric service, radiant heat, hot and cold running water and public rest rooms.
Of all the drawings that went into his architectural designs – including schools, churches and private residences – none compared to the number of drawings, or to the extent of detail Leh lavished on the Municipal Market House. Perhaps one reason Leh retained these drawings throughout his career was because they were a reminder of the building’s importance to the community.
In the twentieth century, the convenience of trolley service on East Third Street enabled great numbers of riders from both sides of the Lehigh River to shop in the Municipal Market House. In 1930, Robert Pfeifle brought a new presence to the mayor’s office through his efforts to control vice and lawlessness on the South side. Listed in the 1932 Police Blotter, for example, Pfeifle enforced the Market Ordinance – five men from Philadelphia were arrested for peddling without a license, found guilty, paid a fine and were discharged on July 20.
Up to and beyond the World Wars, the Municipal Market House offered farm-fresh produce, meats, fish and poultry on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, while around South Bethlehem, privately-owned butcher shops and bakeries also did business with no shortage of patrons.
The Municipal Market House stood for nearly 70 years and served the community well. Once the new city hall was built on Church St. in Bethlehem during the 1960s, all offices vacated the Municipal Market. It remained idle and was considered an eye sore by a new generation, who never quite understood the significance – or the history behind this beloved South side landmark.
The convenience of corporate supermarkets, superhighways, jet planes, truck deliveries, refrigeration and new methods of food processing had made an impact on small farmers selling to fewer patrons. The Municipal Market House went the way of most inadequate buildings: neglect, abandonment and lack of support for reinvesting in a second use. The building was finally razed in the 1970s, ending a local tradition and the demise of yet another Bethlehem icon.