The Knickerbocker Theater — once located at the southwest corner of Columbia Road and 18th Street, NW — was designed by the young Washington architect, Reginald W. Geare, to seat 1,700 movie goers at a time. When it opened in October, 1917, it was the newest theater in Harry Crandall’s string of Washington theaters. This was by far Crandall’s largest theater at the time and was a good example of early-twentieth-century architecture inspired by neoclassicism.

Knickerbocker Theater Oct. 1917Knickerbocker Theater foyer

Unfortunately, the Knickerbocker Theater will always be linked in people’s minds to tragedy. On Friday, January 21, 1922, a heavy snowfall began in Washington and continued for thirty hours. It left the city paralyzed under 28 inches of snow in the worst storm the city had seen since 1889.

Despite these conditions, the theater opened as usual the following Saturday evening. As the movie was ending and the organist was playing at 9:10 p.m., a groaning and cracking sound began from above. Two minutes later, there was a mad rush to the exits as the roof crashed in under the weight of the snow.

Knickerbocker Theater Interior Oct. 1917Knickerbocker disaster 1

98 people had died and 136 were trapped under the rubble. The crowd of about 3,000 bystanders made it difficult for rescuers to assist the victims until a company of marines arrived to restore order at 11 p.m.

The subsequent investigation determined that the contractor had inserted the steel beams supprting the roof only 2 inches into the walls rather than the 8 inches Geare had specified, and Geare and Crandall were found innocent of any wrong doing.

Crandall rebuilt the Knickerbocker in 1923 and reopened it as the Ambassador. As the Ambassador, the building survived until it was razed in 1969. Added by David: While nowhere near as tragic as the loss of 98 lives, replacing this building with the bank that’s there today is a tragedy all its own.  The Wikipedia article claims residents cheered the building’s demise, even saying, “Whatever happens can only be an improvement,” but that seems a little too convenient to believe without corroboration.

Geare and Crandall didn’t fare so well. His career ruined by the disaster, Geare committed suicide in 1927. Similarly, Crandall ended up bankrupt and took his own life in 1937.

More photos of the disaster after the jump:

Knickerbocker disaster 2
Knickerbocker disaster 3
Knickerbocker disaster 4
Knickerbocker disaster 5
Knickerbocker disaster 6

Kent Boese posts items of historic interest, primarily within the District. He’s worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He’s been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and served as the Commission’s Chair since 2013. He has a MS in Design from Arizona State University with strong interests in preservation, planning, and zoning. Kent is also the force behind the blog Park View, DC.