‘It’s a touchstone'; Frager’s Hardware burns in Capitol Hill

As the sun rose on Capitol Hill Thursday morning, you could still smell the smoke from blocks away. Twelve hours earlier, Frager’s Hardware, the four-storefront establishment that has been at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Ave, SE since 1920, burned to the ground in a four-alarm fire.

Residents of Capitol Hill watch smoke billow from Frager's Hardware Store
Residents of Capitol Hill watch smoke billow from Frager’s Hardware Store. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

By 6:30 a.m., the store’s loyal neighbors, still stunned, milled about in their house clothes, hoping to get yet another look. By 7:30 a.m., runners and joggers cut short their exercise to take pictures. By 8 a.m., commuters paid their respects.

Many brought their dogs, some brought their kids. A few even wore their iconic Frager’s Hardware T-shirts, unmistakable navy blue with orange writing, in solidarity. And emotions were still raw.

That’s because Frager’s was not just a hardware store. Or a paint store. Or a flower shop. It was an institution the likes of which the District might not ever see again. Sure, the prices were a little higher than the competitors, but for everyone trying to keep their 150-year-old house upright, it was a vital resource.

“Almost every house on Capitol Hill that was renovated, was using Frager’s materials,” Lisa McCormack, 58, a native Washingtonian said, while holding her dog, Chloe, and looking at the ruins. “You go to Frager’s to get advice about everything in your house and your garden. It’s a touchstone. And Capitol Hill is a village, and this is one of the iconic places.”

The building itself was memorable. Regulars would joke about how you could only fit one person in an aisle at a time. When I lived near Barney Circle some years back and popped in occasionally, I liked to call it the hardest-working place on the Hill — and that includes the Capitol.

This area has seen its fair share of fires recently. Capitol Lounge. Eastern Market. Most recently, Tune Inn. And now, Frager’s has suffered the same cruel fate.

Tim Curran, a Washington Post editor, was in the hardware store when the blaze began. “The neighborhood changed, but Frager’s didn’t,” he said. “The Eastern Market fire will always be remembered to outsiders as the most important loss. But internally, the Frager’s one will stick more.”

And that’s because as a community resource, the place was unmatched. They sponsored Little League teams and helped out with school events. Kids earned their college and high school money working there. Employees greeted customers in the mornings like neighbors, which, they were. For an older school generation in D.C., Frager’s was everything that Hechinger’s was not.

What became apparent on social media last night, was that Frager’s served as the first real connection that many transplants made to calling D.C. home. I probably read “I feel sick,” about 100 times on Twitter. The question now is: How do you rebuild? They can put everything back on the shelves, they can rebuild the caved in roof, but will that be enough?

Shad Ewart, who lived in the area from 1987-2001, and whose wife works at Watkins Elementary, worries that it won’t be, from a business standpoint.

“During the time off there, people are going to start developing a new set of [purchasing] patterns,” Ewart, a business professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said. “I worry about, almost more from an entrepreneurial standpoint, is Frager’s going to be viable in the future. Can they recreate the sense of community? I absolutely believe so.”

As water from Engine 28’s Truck 17 ladder poured in over the charred storefront sign Thursday on Pennsylvania Avenue, Tom Scofield could barely keep his composure as he explained to his son what was happening in front of them.

“My wife and I used to work here, we met there. … Probably 17 years ago,” Scofield, 37, said. When asked if his son, who clung to a tree nearby, would be around if it weren’t for Frager’s, his eyes dropped in tears. “Probably not. We always assumed that they’d probably grow up and get high school jobs here or something. Hopefully it’ll come back, and they can do something like that.”

Indeed, eerily, one sign hung strong on a fence among the rubble of a building behind on Thursday morning. It seemed like a bright shining memory from an era that was instantly behind us. The white background board was still clean with words that signaled the familiar beginning of summer.

“We sell ICE. 10 lb bag. $2.99.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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