Georgetown Fires Through the Ages

Georgetown Branch Library Cupola in Flames

News Tuesday night of a fire at Blues Alley got GM thinking about other fires throughout Georgetown’s history. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to remember some of them, because there have been a bunch of significant ones! Here are just a small sampling of the infernos that have raged in the neighborhood:

Georgetown Library

The most recent notable fire surely was the August 2007 conflagration that struck the Georgetown neighborhood library. It was suspected to have been started by workers using heat guns to remove paint during renovations. (Oddly the historic Eastern Market also was gutted by fire the exact same day.)

If it weren’t for the quick thinking of Jerry McCoy at the Peabody Room, a whole treasure trove of Georgetown history would have been destroyed by the fire. That’s because McCoy thought to bring in a document freezer truck from the Library of Congress to safely protect the documents that were drenched by the fire hoses.

It took years of construction, but the renewed library opened October 2010 with a Peabody Room still full of priceless Georgetown history.

Georgetown Visitation

Further in the past was the fire at Georgetown Visitation. It took place July 8, 1993 and started in the Starkweather Academy’s attic. Like the fire that hit the library, this one also imperiled priceless history since the school’s archives were in the attic. Sadly they were mostly lost but for some precious relics, including chalices, linens and vestments from the sacristy, as well as a painting of Jesus, Mary and Martha in prayer. That painting was a gift of French king Charles X.

The building was rebuilt and dedicated as Founder’s Hall when it reopened May 5, 1995.

Dempsey’s Boathouse

This fire took place May 3, 1961 and destroyed the historic Dempsey’s Boathouse that once stood just upriver from the old Aqueduct Bridge abutment.

Here is what GM wrote about the fire several years ago:

Dempsey’s Boathouse was a gigantic boathouse that once stood between the aqueduct bridge and the Washington Canoe Club:

Dempsey’s was built in 1903, a year ahead of the construction of Washington Canoe Club and five years before the Potomac Boat Club built its current boathouse just on the other side of the aqueduct bridge.

Unlike those private clubs, however, Dempsey’s was open to all, renting boats to the public.

Dempsey’s eventually was abandoned after the construction of Thompson’s Boathouse in 1960. It was just months later when the empty boathouse went up in flames.

The photo at the top comes, which is much clearer than any photo of the fire GM has previously found, comes from the Potomac Boat Club’s collection of photos. This was a scary moment for the club, which was in danger of catching on fire as well. GM, a member, has heard stories from old timers about how some members raced down to the building and started to spray it with water to save it. It worked, and the building remains standing.

Masonic Hall

In 1963, a fire hit the historic Masonic Hall that stood on Wisconsin Ave. just above M St. Like all masonic halls, the brotherhood’s meeting rooms were on the second floor. The first floor housed Weaver’s hardware. Here’s what the old building looked like:

The fire gutted the building and it (sadly, in GM’s opinion) rebuilt in a faux colonial style instead of the exotic design it had before. The Weavers still own the building and have run their store out of the second story since the 90s.

And that’s all the fires GM can think of quickly, but sure there are more. What has he missed?

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