Frager’s Hardware owner John Weintraub stands on the grassy median at the corner of 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Behind him: a few dozen Capitol Hill residents, some snapping iPhone photos and some just gaping. In front of him: his 93-year-old hardware store, in ruin.

A raging fire more or less destroyed Frager’s Hardware last night. The brick building still stands, but shattered green glass covers the sidewalk from 11th to 12th streets, and blackened debris protrudes from the window frames. Two hundred firefighters fought the blaze, which wasn’t declared to be under control until around 11 pm. Two firetrucks still sit in front of the store on a blocked-off portion of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The cause of the fire is still unknown. Weintraub says a customer smelled smoke in the lumber area on the 11th Street side of the store around 6:30 p.m. He went to investigate with a fire extinguisher.

“It was just too much smoke, and it was pitch black,” Weintraub says.

A well-meaning neighbor in suit and tie, clutching copies of the New York Times and Politico, offers advice. “I would love to see you use Eastern Market as a template,” he says, referring to the fire that devastated the neighborhood’s public market in 2007. Weintraub politely explains that the city was in charge of that recovery.

Weintraub, who says he’s never had a fire since buying the store from the Frager family in 1975, has been in touch with his insurance company. “It’s gotta be in the millions,” he says of the damage. He’s hoping the insurance will help with the salaries of his 65 employees.

“I’ve been telling them we’re going to pay them,” Weintraub says. Offers of assistance to Frager’s employees have started coming in, including one from Capitol Hill’s Matchbox location. Matchbox has offered temporary work for Frager’s folks and suggests anyone interested come by the restaurant between 2 and 5 p.m. today.

One part of the operation appears to have survived the fire virtually unscathed: the garden. The nursery, which sits further east than any part of the store, looks undamaged. A cart of what appear to be potted geraniums sits on the sidewalk, and yellow blooms peak out from behind the garden’s metal gates.

“The garden looks good,” Weintraub agrees, adding that fire personnel still won’t let him near it to investigate. “Someone’s going to need to water the plants. Maybe we can sell the plants. Of course our computers…” He shrugs. “I’m just thinking on the fly here.”

Neighbors are already eulogizing Frager’s, which enjoys legendary status among Hill residents. Gina Arlotto says she went to the store on her very first day living in the neighborhood—the day she and her husband closed on their house in 1994. “We got our keys made and our locks changed,” she says. “We went here and then to Tunnicliff’s and had a drink.”

Arlotto is wearing a Frager’s T-shirt—-as were a number of people walking around the neighbhorhood this morning. She starts running down things she’s picked up at the store over the years: a wind-up alarm clock as a birthday present for her kid, a rented pick ax, plants, radiator keys. She says sometimes she would lose her husband in Frager’s only to find him wandering around the nuts and bolts room in the back.

“I’m so hopeful that they’ll come back,” she says.

Photo by Jenny Rogers