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What Lies Beneath? Inside The Lexington Market Catacombs And The New Market Pavilion

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Few places in Baltimore are as steeped in history as Lexington Market.

For 240 years, it has survived fires, raids and the ups and downs of Baltimore itself. From a sprawling mostly outdoor marketplace that grew to more than one thousand vendors, Lexington Market got its start when our nation was new. And it is still going strong, set to open in a reimagined space later this year.

The A-frame roof is a nod to what the market looked like in the early 1900s. WJZ got a peek inside with Picket Slater Harrington of Transform Lexington Market.

"Imagine everywhere surrounding us, vendors cooking and preparing food, while in the middle, you have specialty vendors who are selling their wares as well. While downstairs, you have all the fresh food," Harrington told Mike Hellgren for WJZ at 9.

The new facility has been under construction for about two years. There will also be an outdoor space when it opens. No decision has been made on exactly what will be done with the current market, but the space will be used for the community.

"I hear a lot of great hope and fear when it comes to the development of Lexington Market. Sometimes, it's a fear of change and things being different, but there's also this tremendous, deep hope for Lexington Market," he said. "And that hope is what's driving this project, and it's truly going to be what the community of Baltimore makes this space. And that is I think the great story you'll see: The connection between this physical space and the city that pulls everyone together."

The rebirth is one of many over the years. The market got its current look after a devastating fire in 1949 lead to redevelopment.

Tracing its origins to 1782, Lexington Market was always a bustling collection of stalls, though many were outside. You can still see the vendor numbers etched into the curbs on West Lexington Street.

Johns Hopkins, the executive director of Baltimore Heritage, helped us unlock some of Lexington Market's mysteries, taking WJZ under the garage that spans Paca to Greene Streets.

It is here where large underground vaults—the catacombs—still exist, although tours have not yet resumed.

"We kind of don't know how extensive it is. There are a couple of mysterious doors that are concreted up. We don't know where they go. But we're pretty sure the tunnels went at least a couple blocks west of the market, probably to a set of slaughterhouses," Hopkins said.

This network of tunnels and storage rooms below busy West Baltimore streets was used for storage before the days of refrigeration.

"It gets hot as the dickens in the summer—and these were natural refrigerators," Hopkins said.

During Prohibition, bootleg whiskey was distilled in the catacombs, and in the 1930s there was even an anti-communist raid.

The underground areas were all but forgotten in the following decades, unearthed again when the garage was built in the 1950s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a restaurant called Tubbs—whose faded storefront is still visible on Greene Street—operated on one of the main vaults.

The dusty, old fixtures are still there including a menu board listing the price of a crab cake as $3.10, a bargain in these days of high inflation.

Tubbs was abandoned in a hurry, shut down reportedly over go-go dancing in the late '80s. The space remains frozen in time.

"The liquor board chair in closing it down said something like, 'I am no nun, but what I saw there would make me ashamed,'" Hopkins said.

You can see ghosts of the past here. You just have to know where to look, and that's one of the things that makes Lexington Market so special.

"It is almost impossible to come down here and not wonder what has happened over the 150 or more years in these tunnels, in these spaces." Hopkins told Hellgren.

It is also the place that has fed Baltimore for centuries.

Paul Ruppert now runs Lexington Market, along with Baltimore's other historic market places. "Public markets are special because they attract and they appeal to everyone," Ruppert told Hellgren.

And he's excited to share the latest re-imagination of this iconic Baltimore space, calling it "one of the most important projects we've done in Baltimore for the last couple of decades."

With more than two centuries of history, Lexington Market is evolving yet again into a new gathering place while hoping to keep that old Baltimore charm.

"The new market building really builds on a more than 200-year tradition of this fascination with Lexington Market and a commitment by all of us who love it to keep it as vibrant today as it has been for generations and generations," Hopkins said.

No firm date has been set for the reopening, but almost every week, new vendors are signing leases after what was a competitive selection process.

This story was first published March 9, 2022 

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