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Peggy Cooper Cafritz suffers second fire, discusses losing mansion

A sculpture in front of the ruins of Peggy Cooper Cafritz's art-filled D.C. home after a disastrous July 2009 fire.(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

This is the kind of year Peggy Cooper Cafritz is having:
Four months after a fire burned her art-filled mansion to the ground, she just endured another blaze -- this time in the Georgetown apartment where she relocated after losing her home. A clothes dryer burst into sparks and flames, charring the laundry room and filling her new place with thick smoke.

"It was ..." she told us, searching for the right word "... discombobulating."

Cafritz in 2000. (Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)

Cafritz, 62, moved into the Water Street condo in September; the latest fire broke out two weeks ago. This time, the flames were contained -- but smoke invaded every cranny, and all her clothing had to be cleaned to remove the acrid smell.

The longtime civic activist spoke to us last week, her first extensive public comments since losing her home. "I'm putting one foot in front of the other," she said.

In late July, while the former D.C. school board president was visiting friends on Martha's Vineyard, a two-alarm blaze gutted her sprawling home on Chain Bridge Road -- and destroyed one of the country's major collections of modern African American and African art, just as it was being showcased in the August issue of O magazine. (Some reports valued the collection at $15 million; Cafritz declined to comment on the amount.)

A report from investigators last month determined the fire was accidental, likely sparked by oily rags left in a trash bag on her porch. Firefighters reported that their attempts to battle the blaze were hindered by inadequate water pressure from nearby hydrants, which has led to a larger review of city water supply issues.

In September, Cafritz's insurance company moved her into the luxury waterfront condo where she could begin the process of reconstructing her life. She now has to inventory and submit claims for everything she lost -- "you have to list every sock, even lint," she said -- and is "overwhelmed with everything I have to do. It's intense."

Her biggest decision: whether to rebuild on her original Chain Bridge lot -- "I'm definitely thinking about that" -- or start fresh in a new location.

Then there's the more complicated question of replacing and rebuilding her famed art collection, amassed over 20 years. "It's a very slow process," she said. "I don't think there was anything in the fire that is salvageable." A few pieces were pulled from her basement, but Cafritz said they were "severely damaged. I don't think they could be restored."

Artists represented in her home have already offered to help. Photographer Hank Willis Thomas, who creates works exploring African American identity, has agreed to reprint his work for Cafritz at cost. Others will likely follow, when possible.

But, she said, "it's doubtful I'll be able to rebuild my collection as it was." Cafritz bought works from now-famous artists when they were relative unknowns; now similar pieces are selling for 10 times what she paid.

"I will continue to collect," she said. "I'll just have to start looking for new, younger artists."

By The Reliable Source  |  November 23, 2009; 1:04 AM ET
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Homes beyond a certain value need to have "special rules" that mandate sprinkler systems or other state of the art fire suppression systems and have the best structural and foundation elements to ensure tht they will last as investment sin the future. They also need rules for energy independence and conservation to promote the values of our nation. We do not need low quality fire traps that people pay inflated prices for because they are in the right locations.

Posted by: gary4books | November 23, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Without being unkind usually this sort of thing is called either arson or a fire of suspicous origin. Bet'cha she can 'prove' every item.

Posted by: KBlit | November 23, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

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