When Milwaukee’s City Hall Was Market Hall 

Water Street was the retail heart of the city before it became what it is today.

Water Street, not Wisconsin Avenue, was once the retail heart of Downtown Milwaukee. For most of the 19th century, the street was lined with businesses from Juneau Avenue to the Walker’s Point bridge, and no section was livelier than the blocks around Wells Street. The intersection’s focal point was Market Hall, the ornate building near the center of this circa-1889 photograph. Built in 1852, Market Hall was a sort of year-round indoor farmers market. “We have only to walk in with our baskets,” reported the Milwaukee Sentinel, “and can be furnished with every variety of food needed for daily use.” 



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An outdoor market materialized in front of Market Hall at least twice a week, when area farmers lined up their wagons to sell eggs, butter, hay, firewood, pork and even fresh venison directly to consumers. The brick-and-mortar businesses on Water Street specialized in more durable products, like wallpaper and eyeglasses. 

Municipal government entered the picture in 1860, when civic authorities, faced with the need to replace a previous home that had burned down, purchased Market Hall and converted it to City Hall. The landmark remained the seat of city government until 1873, when the mayor and aldermen moved into a rented wing of the new county courthouse in what is now Cathedral Square. Two decades later, they moved back to Water Street. In 1895, following a threefold increase in Milwaukee’s population, the old Market Hall was replaced by today’s monumental City Hall on precisely the same site. 

One by one, the other buildings in this photograph met similar fates. Nearly all gave way to hotels, banks, office buildings and other large-scale developments, but one reminder of the earliest days remains: the short street just east of City Hall is still called Market Street. 


  • This early streetlight marked the dawn of the electric age.
  • Telegraph wires were lifelines of communication in 1889, particularly in Milwaukee’s business district.
  • The peaked-roof building at 777 N. Water St. is one of just a handful of structures in this photograph still
    standing. Today it houses Rodizio Grill.
  • Barrels were all-purpose containers in the 1800s, used for nails, cement, molasses and a variety of other products, including, of course, beer.
  • The Cream City Rail Road was one of several horsecar lines that were combined in 1890-91 to create the
    utility that is now We Energies.



This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June Summer Guide issue.

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