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Fire Scorches the City's Cultural Landscape, Too
Cafritz Home Was Art Showplace and Social Hub

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.

The property is assessed at more than $5 million, according to property records.

"We're all devastated and very saddened by this loss of the house, but also very thankful that no one was hurt," Cooper said.

The destruction comes just as Cafritz and her home are making a full-color splash in the August issue of Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, as well as on Oprah.com, in a feature titled "Art House: Supporting Talented Young Artists of Color." Cafritz is photographed with the art, and she told the writer of the piece: "I feel guilty if I'm not civically engaged."

The art house also maintained its politically active tradition to the end: Cafritz had scheduled a fundraiser this week for Terri Sewell, a Democratic candidate for Congress from Alabama, Cafritz's home state.

At the beginning of its 23-year existence, 3030 Chain Bridge Rd. was the scene of lavish politico-cultural affairs Cafritz co-hosted with her then-husband, Conrad Cafritz, the real estate developer. The couple met in 1972 and cut a fashionable interracial profile at a time when Washington's established social trendsetters were painfully aware of the lack of African Americans in their set. They married in 1981. They bought late Missouri senator Stuart Symington's old place, razed it and built a new house in 1986, according to real estate records. At the time of the fire, the grounds included a tennis court and a basketball court.

As part of the couple's 1998 divorce settlement, Peggy Cooper Cafritz got the house. (Conrad Cafritz declined to comment.)

But before then, while the couple were still together, the house was the scene of many memorable bashes, as the Cafritzes updated the party-giving-with-a-purpose tradition of his parents, Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz.

There was the 1988 fundraiser for Jesse Jackson, then running for president, when "several hundred black professionals and white liberals" turned out for the candidate, according to an account in "The Washington Century," a 2004 book by Burt Solomon. In the mid-1990s, when John F. Kennedy Jr. was looking for a location for the first party in the capital for his magazine, George, the affair ended up at 3030 Chain Bridge Rd. It was an Oscars party, and the likes of Colin Powell, George Stephanopoulos, Vernon Jordan, Jane Alexander and Ron Brown schmoozed and watched the 1995 Academy Awards.

"Most people in Washington at a certain level, they have a group," Peggy Cooper Cafritz is quoted by Solomon. "The political pundits and the journalism community, and then you have the arts people, and then you have the megabucks people, and you have a Jewish group. . . . Except for large events, there's not a lot of cross-fertilization."

She overlapped with many of those circles, and 3030 Chain Bridge Rd. was like a social Venn diagram.

After the divorce, she went on to become president of the D.C. Board of Education for six sometimes stormy years, then declined to run for reelection because, she said, "I want my life back."

Since retiring from the school board, Cafritz has been focused on raising her teenage son, Cooper, 17, a senior at the British School of Washington, according to her nephew. She's also added to her art collection, and raised money for the Ellington School.

Some people noted a tapering off of parties at the house. In latter years, what many remember most is the art -- which of course had been present all along. Now it is being mourned.

Art was the house's foundation, its doorways, its electricity, said people who had been invited there.

"It was as though the house was a containment for the art that was such an integral part of her life," said Tony Powell. He visited the house many times and remembers that art by students was displayed as prominently as that by renowned artists. Powell said, "I know those pieces meant just as much to her."

When artists die, their work becomes more valuable.

What happens when art dies? When what is captured in paint and on canvas and in the tiny curves of sculptures go up in flames, burning in the house that protected them?

"It leaves a hole in the universe," said Washington artist Aziza Gibson-Hunter. "Art captures the cultural memory of a people. These things we create, they become touchstones for the souls of people."

What was unusual about the house was that it contained a rare, eclectic mix of African American art. "It's so painful because she had beautiful work and we have so few people who collect our work," said Gibson-Hunter. "It's a great loss for our folks because she was a keeper of our culture."

Now, say those who know her, Cafritz will have to find a way to carry on. Before she can scale all the possibilities, she must find a place that accomplishes the first job of a residence, providing shelter.

"She's in the process of having to figure that out," said her nephew. "I don't think she knows."

Staff writers Keith Alexander, Theola Labbé-DeBose and Philip Kennicott, research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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