Fire at Home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz Scorches Washington's Cultural Landscape

A large fire in northwest D.C. destroyed the home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a local arts patron, on the night of July 29.
By David Montgomery and DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 2009

Few residences transcend their original functions of hearth and home in as splendidly public fashion as 3030 Chain Bridge Rd. NW.

When fire gutted Peggy Cooper Cafritz's house Wednesday night, it wasn't just a woman losing her abode. A neighborhood lost its signature architectural landmark, styled like a summer manse with its gables, columns and big, welcoming porch. A city lost one of its more memorable artistic, political and social salons -- a vital interracial crossroads where problem-solvers and creators could mingle and brainstorm.

The international arts community lost a stunning assemblage of African and African American art that Cafritz displayed throughout the eight-bedroom house. And a generation of young artists -- many of them nurtured at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which she helped establish -- lost a refuge where they were celebrated and inspired, and where their art was sometimes displayed for patrons and admirers.

Fire officials said the cause was still under investigation.

The blaze also reignited concerns over D.C. firefighters' ability to access sufficient water pressure to extinguish fires in some of the city's higher-elevation neighborhoods. Officials from the department and from the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority argued Thursday over who was to blame for reported delays in getting water onto the flames. Residents of the Foxhall neighborhood were left feeling one more facet of loss -- that of their own sense of safety.

"I am powerfully upset," said NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell, one of the neighbors who hastened to the scene of destruction of the dwelling that another neighbor likened to Tara in "Gone With the Wind."

"The house was a kingmaker," said Bonnie Cain, education adviser for D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

"Some people adorn their walls with their art," said Tony Powell, a choreographer, filmmaker and photographer whom Cafritz helped sponsor. "Peggy adorned her art collection with her home. Art was the life force of the home. It was the heartbeat of the home."

"I have this great house," Cafritz once said. "I think I should be pretty generous about its use."

And so she was over the years, throwing it open to a range of guests, the powerful and the obscure, and some who just needed shelter, like the many foster children she took in over the years.

"It was her dream home," said nephew Casey Cooper, 42, a lawyer in the District. "It was a real gathering place for her large and very close circle of friends."

Cafritz, 62, who was staying with friends in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., when the fire broke out, was slated to return to Washington on Thursday night. She spoke briefly by telephone on Thursday about the art collection but would not discuss the fire, and was not available later to comment. Cooper fielded calls from reporters on her behalf.

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