Speak of the devil. After the column appeared Wednesday on the renovations at the Capital Hilton Hotel, a lifelong Washingtonian, Stanley Gimble, asked why Metro Scene's recounting of the hotel's history ignored the time the hotel almost burned down.
It wasn't germane, I replied. Yesterday's three-alarm kitchen fire, reported elsewhere in today's paper, now provides what we call a "news peg" -- something we can hang the old story onto.
For starters, the spectacular five-alarm fire fought in a stiff wind by 350 firefighters on Feb. 8, 1942, didn't almost burn the hotel down. Actually it almost prevented the hotel at 16th and K streets NW, then called the Statler, from being built.
Author Rufus Jarman, who researched the hotel's early years, recorded that nine floors of steel framework had been erected and wooden forms for the concrete had been built up to the fourth floor. Some forms and lumber stacked on the ground caught fire. The flames spread upward and twisted 290 steel beams out of shape.
In those days soon after Pearl Harbor, steel for civilian purposes was not available. The Statler's owners were about to halt the job despite the need for accommodations in a capital bursting at the seams.
But the building contractor persevered, combing metal dealers and small steel yards all over the country, and was able to piece together enough odd beams to get the job done. On Jan. 18, 1943, the hotel opened.
Over the years, the hotel has had its share of relatively minor fires, mostly -- as was the case yesterday -- in its kitchens. One night in February 1949, President Truman entered the hotel to attend a Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner even as three firemen in a kitchen were quietly extinguishing a fire that engulfed five gallons of oil in a deep-fat fryer.