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D.C. reaches accord on lawsuit over fire

By Deirdre Bannon

Current Correspondent

The D.C. Attorney General’s Office has accepted a $6 million settlement in a lawsuit stemming from an April 2007 fire at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, which destroyed the building and damaged its contents, including some historic documents, photos and paintings.

The city originally sought $13 million from the contractor and subcontractor that were performing work on the library, claiming in court papers that negligence caused the fire. The Attorney General’s Office said in a news release Friday that it had agreed to a settlement to “avoid the costs and uncertainty of pursuing litigation further, and to allow the parties to put this incident from nearly five years ago behind them.”

Other than to say the case went through mediation, the office declined The Current’s request to comment further on its decision to settle.

The funds, which will be deposited into the city’s general treasury, will be paid by the insurance carriers of the general contractor, Dynamic Corp., which has offices in D.C. and Hyattsville, Md., and the subcontractor, Two Brothers Contracting Inc., headquartered in Clifton, N.J., with offices in the District. Neither company responded to The Current’s request for comment.

Investigators from D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department concluded in 2007 that a construction worker using a heat gun probably caused the three-alarm fire at 3260 R St.

After an extensive renovation, the library reopened in October 2010. But efforts to restore archival material from the library’s Peabody Room, much of which highlights the neighborhood’s history, are still under way. The collection includes paintings, photographs and maps as well as other documents and artifacts. According to Peabody Room special collection librarian Jerry McCoy, the archives were damaged not by the fire but by the water used to extinguish it.

“I tell people when they come to see the Peabody Room now that they are looking at a miracle,” said McCoy. “It’s a miracle that what survived survived — it could have easily all gone up in flames.”

The paintings that hung on the walls of the old Peabody Room received the brunt of the water damage, according to McCoy. The collection includes a portrait of George Peabody and other 19th-century paintings of prominent Georgetown residents. Of the 40 original paintings, four have been restored to date and are adorning the library’s walls, including the portrait of Peabody.

The damaged materials were sent to a facility in Texas to be freeze-dried, a process that prevents further damage and the growth of mold. Over 400 boxes of unorganized historic materials were returned to the library system, McCoy said, and he spent three years unpacking them and reorganizing the collection. “It was like completing the picture of a puzzle,” he said.

While the fire was traumatizing for many, including McCoy, he said opening the boxes of restored materials from Texas was sometimes “like Christmas.”

“I really learned the collection,” McCoy said. “I handled every piece of paper — tens of thousands of them — and we found things we didn’t know we had.”

The non-profit D.C. Library Foundation is raising funds to complete restoration work on the collection, and it has raised $300,000 for the Peabody Room’s archives so far. The organization estimates it will take an additional $125,000 to complete the restoration work, though the group noted that not all pieces have been assessed for damage.

McCoy is eager to celebrate the restoration work that has been done so far, and he welcomes visitors to come see the collection. “I really love to give people tours of the Peabody Room,” he said. The renovated space is larger than the original room, and McCoy is able to better highlight the contents of the collection.

For more information on the Peabody Room restoration effort, visit

This article appears in the Nov. 9 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.