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Fire Claims Library, and Pieces of the Past
Branch Was Trove of Georgetown History

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

For 140 years, residents of Georgetown have been compiling a rare trove of data on their past: oil paintings, leather-bound maps, photos and files on nearly every property in the neighborhood -- all kept in the stately, two-story library on R Street NW.

In just a few hours yesterday, a three-alarm fire devoured much of it.

Onlookers gasped as D.C. firefighters carried out item after historical item. Most were severely damaged: a warped 1840 oil painting of a freed slave, a soot-covered copy of a D.C. atlas from a century ago, a photo left unrecognizable by flames.

Flames could be seen all afternoon. They ate through the precious Peabody Room, the key source for original historic materials about Georgetown. The second-floor room was named after the financier who in 1867 provided seed money for a library for Georgetown.

"The second floor is gone," said branch manager Mary Hernandez.

The fire also ate a slice of Georgetown's present, the place where "toddler time" was every Tuesday and Thursday morning, where generations of children came to pass the afternoon.

Two hundred city firefighters and about two dozen trucks battled the blaze, shutting down bustling Wisconsin Avenue. Yesterday evening, it remained unclear what had started the fire, which appeared to have begun "in the middle of the roof," said Richard Levy, a member of the library system's board of trustees and chairman of its facilities committee.

The branch, like other city libraries, had no fire-suppression system, such as sprinklers, which the city's chief librarian said wasn't uncommon for buildings holding delicate documents and artwork.

"The inadvertent letting off of water can be more damaging than smoke," said Ginnie Cooper. She added that "state-of-the-art" buildings have systems that hard-wire them to the fire department for immediate notification. "We did not have such a system."

In addition, two of the fire hydrants closest to the library were not functioning, said Acting D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin. Employees said they couldn't remember whether an alarm had gone off.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), surrounded for the second time yesterday by firetrucks and grieving neighbors, called the Georgetown branch of the D.C. system "our historic flagship library."

The Georgian Revival-style mansion held other precious regional documents, including copies of the 1775-76 Maryland Gazette newspaper, which reported the Declaration of Independence as a news story.

"This has always been my worst nightmare. I've always feared this would happen," said Jerry McCoy, a librarian and archivist of the Peabody Room. "I've always thought: If there was a fire, what would I grab first?" He was called to the library after the fire started.

About 12 people were at the library when a staff member arriving for work about noon ran in, yelling that smoke was coming from the roof, Hernandez said. The library had opened at 9:30 a.m., and a program was going on in the children's room, she said.

"She screamed at everyone to get out," said Hernandez, who looked to be in shock as she stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by other staffers from the city's library system. Although firefighters were able to extract about two dozen artifacts and spread plastic tarp over some sections inside the library, they still were unable yesterday evening to enter all parts of the building. The retrieved items will be turned over to restoration experts to see what can be saved.

Rubin said it wasn't clear whether the fact that the two closest fire hydrants were not working had been a stumbling block for firefighters. Thick white hoses snaked up and down Wisconsin Avenue, past a Japanese restaurant and a Realtor's office.

Jerilyn Stone, from the adjacent neighborhood of Burleith, was one of dozens of neighbors who stood transfixed yesterday, watching tiny flames lick through the roof. She recalled how 20 years ago she and other mothers brought their children to the library for Monday afternoon story hour. As tears pooled in her eyes, she said, "It's sad to see all these children who won't enjoy it."

Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Susan Levine contributed to this report.

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