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 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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, with Russell Simmons.