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Big Blaze on the Hill Could Reshape Congressional Community

Three of Capitol Hill’s neighborhood icons have now been gutted by fire in the past five years. How the first two have been resurrected — and what might happen to the third — offer clues about how much the community closest to Congress will evolve in the coming decade.

Eastern Market, spectacularly gutted in 2007, has been restored to almost all of its airy 19th-century Italianate magnificence — with just enough modernized ventilation, circulation and sanitation to assure it will continue to be a prime reason so many young couples make the Hill their home.

More than for the cheese monger, the rival butchers or the “blueberry bucks” on Saturdays, the market looks to have a long life as the Hill’s vibrant town square, where senators and sanitation workers can sample produce and trade small talk without worry the scene will turn political.

The Tune Inn, severely damaged by a smoky kitchen blaze two years ago, got back in business after a somewhat different reconstruction. Opened right after World War II, it became notorious as the top dive bar within walking distance of the Capitol and the best place for aides and interns to wash down a decent patty melt with a shot and a cheap beer.

Some of that vibe, highlighted by its collection of taxidermy, is still there. But so are logo T-shirts and coffee mugs, microbrews, chrome-and-black booths and wood-paneled walls that gleam because of their varnish instead of the old grease. And a segment on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has only intensified the feeling that the bar has left the old neighborhood to become a beacon of Capitol Hill as tourist destination.

Now the creosote-encrusted husk of Frager’s Hardware — nine blocks out Pennsylvania Avenue from the Tune Inn and a five-minute walk from Eastern Market — has the chance to become a proving ground for whether the Hill of the middle 21st century is more about community or kitsch.

On Wednesday night, a four-alarm fire engulfed the three-building complex despite the efforts of 200 firefighters blasting water for almost five hours. Before then, the brown brick façade of Frager’s symbolized the parts of Capitol Hill that modernity had still forgotten. It opened in 1920, when Woodrow Wilson was president and the top leaders of Congress were both Massachusetts Republicans — Frederick Gillett as speaker and Henry Cabot Lodge as Senate majority leader. Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who has now been in Congress longer than anyone, was six years away from being born.

And some of the hinges and hammers and hoses in the upper reaches of the overstuffed shelves, navigated by narrow aisles of creaky wooden flooring, looked like they had been there since that first day — along with the holiday ornaments, jam jars, coaxial cable, solvents, coffee pots and faucets. But the locals loved the quirky but comprehensive hodgepodge, because they knew that somewhere in those recesses they could find whatever they needed for the row house they were restoring or the English basement they were renting for the summer. Better yet, if they didn’t feel like looking, one of the 65 employees was eager to take on the search instead.

In short, a time when the fend-for-yourself big-box store has come to define American retail, Frager’s has been a proud but still profitable throwback to the time when collaboration and customer service were national virtues, both in communities and in Congress. And it was manifestly a place with bipartisan appeal. Carl and Sander M. Levin, the powerful Democratic congressional brother act, have been regular customers. President George W. Bush staged a photo op there to promote small businesses.

The Tune Inn was rebuilt with private money, aided by a bit of customer fundraising, and the profit-motive shines through the whole enterprise. Eastern Market was rebuilt under the direction of the city, and it comes off as a shining example of public money leveraging economic development and community engagement.

The owner of Frager’s since 1975, John Weintraub, says he wants to rebuild but will be able to do so only with a generous insurance payout and some municipal assistance. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is promising that the city will provide some help. Such a public-private partnership could sustain the quality of life on the “real” Capitol Hill for years to come.

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