By Jerry L. Wallace
Today, January 28th, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the nation’s most deadly structural engineering failures, the roof collapse of the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, DC. The theater, part of Harry Crandall’s chain, was located at 18th and Columbia Road. It not only showed movies but also served as a concert and lecture hall. This beautiful movie palace was designed by Reginald W. Geare with the comfort and pleasure of the patron in mind. It opened with much fanfare in October of 1917.
On that Saturday evening in 1922, Washington was coming out of a two-day blizzard, now known as the Knickerbocker Storm, one of the worst in the city’s history. While the city was paralyzed for the most part, a few undaunted souls, tired of being housebound and seeking amusement, made their way that night through the snow and ice to the Knickerbocker, filling perhaps 500 or more of the theater’s 1,700 seats in orchestra and balcony. They had come to see the newly released, silent comedy “Get-Rich-Quick, Wallingford,” based on a George M. Cohan play.
At a little after 9 p.m., without warning, the theater’s ceiling fell in upon the audience, knocking down the balcony in the process, killing or maiming most of those present. One moment there was laughter and music, the next, cries of pain and terror. A gruesome scene unfolded. A heavy snow on the theater’s flat roof was at fault. Its weight brought the ceiling crashing down.
Rescuers were soon to arrive, including Lieutenant Richard E. Byrd, the future polar aviator, who worked heroically that night. There was also a small boy who crawled through the rubble to bring water to those trapped. A makeshift hospital was set up. They did their best in rescuing the living, but it was dangerous and demanding work among slaps of cement, twisted steel beams and plates, and broken sheets of plaster. Eventually, 600 U.S. soldiers were bought in to help and maintain order. It was not until the afternoon of the next day that rescuers finally reached those unfortunates sitting under the fallen balcony. The dead numbered 98 and those injured 133. The dead included prominent citizens, among whom were a former U.S. Representative and members of the diplomatic corps, but mostly average folks, along with the theater manager and the conductor of its orchestra.
President Warren G. Harding, sensing the depth of the tragedy, was moved to issue the following statement:
“I have experienced the same astounding shock and the same inexpressible sorrow which has come to all Washington, and which will be sympathetically felt throughout the land. If I knew aught to say to soften the sorrow of hundreds who are suddenly bereaved, if I could say a word to cheer the maimed suffering, I would gladly do it. The terrible tragedy, staged in the midst of the great storm, has deeply depressed all of us and left us wondering about the revolving fates.”
A coroner’s jury found that the theater victims had died because of faulty construction and design. A grand jury then indicted Geare and four others for manslaughter, but the charge was later quashed. Geare’s career as an architect collapsed along with Knickerbocker’s roof. The theater owner, Harry Crandall, once worth 6 million dollars and a major figure in the motion picture industry, lost his theaters and his wealth. Geare and Crandall were haunted by the disaster. This led both to their graves by suicide in gas-filled “self-execution chambers,” the former in August 1927, the latter, in February 1937. Today, a modern bank building designed in the shape of a theater sits on the Knickerbocker’s site—a momento mori. So ends this tragic story.
Jerry L. Wallace, who is a child of the Midwest, is a historian and archivist. He is retired from the National Archives in Washington and now lives in Kansas with his wife and cats. He spends his days researching and writing. His major historical interest, dating from junior high days, is in the 1920s. Presently, he is researching the use of radio by Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He is also interested in local history. He believes that President Harding is an underrated president, deserving more credit and praise for his accomplishments.