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D.C.’s Capitol Lounge always had a certain smoky charm.
Equipped with a cigar-stocked humidor, a Marlboro- and Parliament-packed vending machine, and ashtrays atop every bar, booth, and table, the popular pub on Pennsylvania Avenue SE enabled nicotine fiends to consume multitudinous numbers of smokes over the years.
Yet it took only one smoldering cigarette, officials say, for the whole place to go up in flames.
On the morning of Aug. 24, a two-alarm fire gutted owner Joe Englert’s two-level tavern. Ten engine companies from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department responded around 6 a.m. to douse the inferno, which wasn’t the least bit stifled by the venue’s collection of combustible wooden furniture and woolly soccer scarves—not to mention bottles of thirst-quenching accelerant.
Much like the aftermath of any other blaze, the lounge’s embers attracted onlookers, including a few regulars. To many folks in the neighborhood, the place had been something of a landmark. Some might even have called it an inspiration.
To sex-scandal-rattled-Senate-staffer-turned-author Jessica Cutler, for instance, it was, according to her recent bonkbuster The Washingtonienne, “an easy and convenient place to pick someone up on the way home from work.”
To teammates of nearby resident Sean O’Donnell, the place offered more than just a friendly environment for cheap post-soccer-game pitchers—it arguably lured them into a hot real-estate market. “We would be there a few nights a week, and I think a lot of the guys on the team realized that it would be a lot easier to get home if they lived on the Hill,” O’Donnell says. “Probably half the team ended up buying houses. It turned out to be a great time to invest in housing on the Hill.”
On the day of the fire, one such homeowner, Matt Antkowiak, spent about two hours, as he puts it, “viewing the carnage, taking pictures, and mourning with others as we gathered outside the remains of our beloved lounge.”
Both Antkowiak and O’Donnell later sneaked a peek inside the treasured tavern. The wall-mounted jukebox was “melted,” and several TVs, including a giant plasma screen, appeared to be “completely destroyed,” reports Antkowiak, who also snapped photos of charred, soot-covered taps and blackened political posters from the era of Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Surviving the blaze seemingly unscathed was a placard promoting former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry: “Making a great city even greater.”
“It was a pretty sad thing to see,” O’Donnell says of the scorched scene.
By evening, the bar had been boarded up and damaged furniture hauled away. A rather optimistic Budweiser sign thanking patrons was later posted: “WE WILL BE OPEN AGAIN IN A FEW WEEKS.”
Given the look of the place, O’Donnell suggests that management has a hefty task ahead. “I’d imagine they’d have to start from scratch,” he says.
What caused the carnage? Investigators officially identified the culprit as “discarded smoking materials,” which were found “at the point of origin,” says fire-department spokesperson Alan Etter. “What they suspect is that somebody put it into a trash can.”
Fire officials have ruled it an accident. And like many accidents, it probably could’ve been prevented—if only lawmakers had acted in a more timely fashion.
Until now, S&T has taken a rather impartial view of the whole hot-button smoking-ban debate. All the fuss about secondhand smoke and respiratory illnesses resulting from regular happy-hour exposure seems a bit silly when you consider all the particulate matter and other pollutants that you inhale on the way to your neighborhood bar.
And as for smoking-ban-opposing Nostradamuses with their dire forecasts of post-prohibition financial devastation of D.C.’s hospitality industry: Check out smoke-free New York, where nightlife is reportedly still thriving. And many patrons are still smoking. Only outdoors. And in a cooler climate, no less.
S&T even found amusement in not-so-droll Republican D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz’s lampooning counter proposal to “ban the sale of alcohol in all bars, restaurants and nightclubs”—a measure aimed, theoretically at least, at this nonsmoking observer’s own vice.
But there’s nothing funny about the searing decimation of Capitol Lounge, which has profoundly altered S&T’s perception of the issue.
Of all 1,500-plus licensed-beverage venues in the District, the lounge was easily the most familiar and most comfortable to this columnist. Years before the S&T era, in fact, your observer spent countless hours at the spot, whiling away a time of unemployment—er, “freelancing”—usually watching soccer matches over pints of frothy Guinness and, after each sweet goal, a celebratory shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey. Later, while S&T was working as a bartender at another neighborhood tavern, the lounge remained a choice destination for his chilling out on days off. Even later, after S&T became a happily married man, it was a place for weekend bloody-mary brunches with the wife, as well as countless guys’ nights out involving one best buddy, heaping plates of greasy 10-cent chicken wings, and beer.
A “memory book” placed outside the burned bar contains seven pages of shout-outs from other Lounge lovers. Entries range from “What a dump!” to “Got engaged here!” to “Met + went home with a total whore. Her name was Melissa. Thanks Cap Lounge!”
All fond memories. All now consigned to memory. All because of one cigarette.
The possibility that similar acts of careless smoking could physically destroy their own favorite watering holes has so far been ignored by the policymakers. Perhaps that’s why some of the present anti-smoking proposals fail to pass muster.
Take Schwartz’s so-called compromise plan to offer tax breaks to businesses that adopt their own smoking restrictions: Places like Capitol Lounge won’t change their smoky ways voluntarily. “It would hurt business,” says manager Simon O’Hare.
Then there’s the Occupational Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2005, sponsored by five councilmembers, which would prohibit “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe, weed, plant, or other combustible substance” in most places—with the notable exception of strip clubs and cigar bars. That wouldn’t have done much good for the stogie-serving tavern, either.
To best prevent future Capitol Lounge–style disasters, lawmakers must adopt the most Draconian proposal yet offered: the Smokefree Workplaces Act of 2005, which would outlaw “the act of puffing” in all public places, from bars and restaurants to laundromats and waiting rooms.
After all, cigarette-ignited fires can happen anywhere. Though an overwhelming majority occur in houses or apartments, they also happen in hotels, office buildings, factories, nursing homes, and, yes, drinking venues.
“Cigarettes cause many, many fires every year,” says Margie Coloian, spokesperson for the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, which reports an estimated 31,200 structural fires sparked by improperly handled cigs in 2001, resulting in 830 deaths, 1,770 injuries, and $386 million in property damage nationwide.
About 800 of these fires occur annually in various “[e]ating or drinking place[s],” resulting in an estimated $16 million in damages, according to the nonprofit’s most recent figures.
In the District alone, carelessly discarded cigarettes have been blamed for setting off at least two bar-ravaging fires in the past year.
Eight months before the Capitol Lounge flare-up, U Street NW hangout Kingpin suffered a similar cig-lit fiery fate. “Almost the exact same thing,” says Zack Eller, a former bartender at the burned-out venue, which has yet to reopen.
“It broke my heart,” he says.
As anti-smoking proposals continue to linger in Schwartz’s committee, S&T wonders: Which of your favorite spots is next to erupt?—Chris Shott
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Greg Hart.