Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Two D.C. landmarks were heavily damaged yesterday in separate fires, saddening longtime residents and historians and leaving merchants and employees uncertain about their future.

The first blaze started at about 1 a.m. at the Eastern Market, destroying the southern section of the 134-year-old building that has become a cultural and economic hub of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The second fire started at about noon at the D.C. Library System’s Georgetown branch.

“I’m sure it’ll be brought back, but it’s sad,” said 40-year-old John Burst, who often brings his children to the Eastern Market, a popular destination for D.C. residents and visitors, especially on weekends when they shop and mingle among vendors selling fresh vegetables, produce, and arts and crafts.

The fire damaged 75 percent of the building, in the 200 block of Seventh Street Southeast, before firefighters got it under control in about three hours, said Lawrence S. Schultz, a D.C. fire department assistant chief.

The first of about 150 firefighters responded in less than two minutes, he said.

Chief Schultz also said the South Hall, which housed mostly food vendors, was gutted but had no serious structural damage. The northern part of the building that housed an art gallery was not damaged. No injuries were reported.

Faithful customers and others began arriving at the market in the early morning to express their concern and sympathy.

Jose Canales spent much of yesterday saying “thank you” to sympathetic customers of his Canales Delicatessen.

Mr. Canales, 57, of Silver Spring, said he heard about the fire at 5:30 a.m. from his daughter who saw it on the news and called him. He said his first reaction to the smoldering building was “worse than I thought.” He opened the deli 24 years ago after leaving construction work.

“I was getting old,” he said. “I wanted to do something that would last a little longer.”

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty visited the scene and said he would help vendors find a place to operate and expedite the rebuilding.

“Eastern Market is a historic landmark that has been the lifeblood of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and a great source of pride for the entire city for more than a century,” he said.

Quest Skinner, a 29-year-old artist whose sells most of her work at the market, said that other venues will sustain her income for only two months and that she wants the mayor to act quickly.

“Give us more than what we’re losing,” Miss Skinner said. “I voted for you. Let my vote count.”

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also promised to help as did D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, the Democrat who represents Ward 6, where the market is located.

Fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the blaze was not arson but still is being investigated. Damage to the building, owned by the D.C. government, is estimated at $5 million to $10 million.

The library fire started in the attic of the 72-year-old building, investigators said. It quickly destroyed almost the entire roof and damaged the second floor, which houses a historical collection of paintings and documents chronicling Georgetown’s history.

“It’s awful,” said Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the library system. “We’ve lost treasures beyond replacement.”

The 12 persons inside the library when the fire started left without injury.

The building, on R Street Northwest, is being renovated, but investigators have not determined the cause of the fire.

The building has no sprinklers, which is common for libraries because water damages books, officials said. Many libraries have a direct line to fire departments, but the Georgetown library did not, several library officials said.

Mr. Etter said only buildings built after 1974 were required to have sprinklers. He did not know what, if any, system the building had because firefighters had to leave the building because it was structurally unsound.

Roughly 20 firetrucks and nearly 200 firefighters were dispatched to the scene, where Mr. Fenty gathered with residents to answer questions and vowed to rebuild or repair the library as quickly as possible.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, also was at the scene. The library is located in Ward 2.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said two three-alarm fires damaging historic buildings in the same day was “unusual” but “not unheard of.”

“It’s a baptism of fire I guess for me,” said Chief Rubin, who was hired in March.

A library employee noticed smoke coming from the roof, alerted everybody inside, then called 911.

Firefighters were dispatched at 12:29 p.m. but found the two nearest fire hydrants inoperable, Chief Rubin said.

They quickly used as many as 20 other hydrants in a several-block radius.

Across the street from the library, firefighters laid out two dozen pieces of artwork and books saved from the Peabody Room, the historic collection on the second floor.

Jerry A. McCoy, historian and archivist of the room, was distraught as he cataloged what had been recovered, including many pieces that had been heavily damaged.

“That is my crown jewel,” he said, pointing to a damaged 1840 portrait of Yarrow Mamout, a freed Muslim slave who lived in Georgetown. “I always thought in the back of my mind that’s what I would grab if the library went up in flames.”

The painting now looks as if it “went through a washing machine,” he said. The previously dark, rich colors were faded and the paint cracked, though Mamout’s bemused expression, colorful hat and pipe in hand were still visible.

Mr. McCoy said he was not surprised when he got the call that the library was in flames.

“It’s an old building with no fire-suppression system,” he said. “I wasn’t shocked. It was like, ‘Oh, this day has finally come that I worried about.’ I feel so bad for the rest of the town because this was their history.”

Eastern Market:

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