The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A century later, the pain of D.C.’s deadliest disaster still resonates

The shell of the collapsed Knickerbocker Theatre at right, with streetcars on Columbia Road NW at left. (Library of Congress)

Washington is well known for its multitude of memorials, a vast portfolio that includes tributes to the likes of Jefferson and Lincoln, veterans of World War II, the passengers who perished on the Titanic and even Sonny Bono.

Tom Barnes knows of one omission he considers beyond egregious: the 98 people who were killed in the deadliest disaster in D.C.’s history, a catastrophe that occurred 100 years ago Friday when the roof of a movie theater collapsed under the weight of more than two feet of snow.

Barnes’s great-grandparents, Clarissa and Reginald Vance, were among those who died on Jan. 28, 1922, at Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theatre. The audience had just settled into their seats for the second showing of the silent comedy “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”

When he passes 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, the Adams Morgan corner where the Knickerbocker stood, Barnes said, he can’t help but feel a measure of anger that no memorial plaque exists at the site acknowledging a calamity that generated banner headlines around the world. A total of 133 people were injured in the collapse.

“It was a major event, and those people deserve some kind of recognition, even 100 years on,” said Barnes, 57, a hotel manager who lives nearby. “It’s part of our city’s history, and it needs to be recorded. Our cities need to teach us things.”

How the Knickerbocker snowstorm became D.C.’s deadliest disaster 100 years ago

The dead, half of whom were in their 20s and 30s, represented a cross-section of Washington life. They included the country’s assistant postmaster general, a former Pennsylvania congressman, a Utah senator’s brother-in-law, a Georgetown University law student, two newspaper reporters, a U.S. Army captain and a real estate broker.

Congressman John Smithwick of Florida was among the survivors. An 11-year-old boy named Grant Kanston emerged unscathed while his parents, Oscar and Mabel, and two sisters, Dorothy, 12, and Aulyn, 8, were crushed by a mix of falling brick, concrete and steel.

“Great God,” Roger Whitcomb, who had escaped after entering the theater just as the roof collapsed, was quoted as saying in a contemporaneous Washington Post account. “It was the most heartrending thing I ever want to witness.”

At the heart of Adams Morgan, a stubbornly quirky neighborhood known for its political activism, smoke shops and nightlife, the triangle-shaped land where the Knickerbocker once stood is a privately owned plaza, part of it occupied by a low-slung 1970s-era building that until recently housed a bank.

Over the past several years, a developer’s plan to build a 54-unit condominium tower on the parcel — now held up by a legal appeal — has generated fierce debate in the neighborhood, with some welcoming a new life for a plaza they view as an unattractive waste of space.

Others insist that the land should be open to the public, as it has been for decades, its attractions including a Saturday morning farmers market that relocated recently. In the past six months, the plaza drew attention because a handful of people sleeping in pop-up tents occupied a portion of the site.

A group opposing the condominium project, Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development, is promoting a gathering for the Knickerbocker anniversary that is planned for the plaza Saturday afternoon. Organizers say they will recite the victims’ names and unveil what they describe as a “memorial sculpture.” Barnes is among the scheduled speakers.

However, the plaza’s owner, Truist Bank, warned the organizers in a “cease and desist” letter Wednesday that it did not have permission to host a memorial on the site. Nancy Shia, an organizer of the event, said she had not received Truist’s letter as of late Thursday afternoon. She did not state whether her group, Neighbors for the Knickerbocker Memorial, would still hold the event as planned.

A separate commemoration is planned for Friday at 6 p.m. across from the plaza, at the corner of Columbia and Adams Mill roads, where a historical placard devotes three sentences and two photographs to the Knickerbocker collapse.

At St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church on Connecticut Avenue NW, the Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg said a prayer is planned for the victims on Sunday. The church lost 15 parishioners in the disaster, including its organist, Alfred Eldridge, and his wife, Harriett. Their deaths led the church to dedicate a memorial chapel, which still exists.

Remembering the 100th anniversary of Washington’s Knickerbocker theater disaster

For Al Jirikowic, 69, a longtime Adams Morgan resident who formerly owned bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, the contemporary drama over the plaza is all part of what he calls “the Knickerbocker curse.”

In addition to the roof collapse, Jirikowic points out that both the theater’s owner, Harry Crandall, and architect, Reginald Geare, later died by suicide. The Knickerbocker’s replacement, the Ambassador Theater, where Norman Mailer spoke and Jimi Hendrix performed in the 1960s, eventually failed and was torn down.

“What happened has been swept under the rug for a long time, and it created a cloud of negativity,” Jirikowic said this week, referring to the Knickerbocker. “It was a real disaster. There’s a lot of unfinished business. There’s a lot of bad karma.”

The Knickerbocker’s opening in October 1917 was a grand affair, with newspaper accounts crowing about the theater’s opulence: walls made of “Indiana limestone and Pompeian art brick,” a state-of-the-art ventilation system, balconies, parlors, lounges and a Japanese tea room.

“Betsy Ross” was the theater’s first “photo-play,” as motion pictures were then called. A special train transported the film’s star, Alice Brady, and other cast members from New York to D.C., where they greeted the thousands of fans who showed up at the Knickerbocker.

All at once, the theater transformed an otherwise sleepy crossroads two miles north of the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson resided, into a slice of cosmopolitan hubbub.

100 years ago, Warren Harding forgave his opponent’s alleged subversion

Five years later, on the night of Jan. 28, 1922, a record snowstorm had dropped 28 inches on the city. More than 200 people tromped through the snow for the 9 p.m. showing of “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” an adaptation of a George M. Cohan Broadway production about con artists.

With an orchestral accompaniment, the film had just begun when Moe Gold, 20, a law student seated in the second row, heard what he later described as a “sinister sort of whistling noise above my head,” after which “I saw the roof of the theater open” and “the whole world seemed to fall on me.”

After blacking out, Gold said, he awoke to the sounds of “horribly suffering people trying to wiggle out of the debris like mangled worms.” The screaming, he said, “seemed to ring to heaven.”

John Jay Daly, a Washington Post critic, was in the back row to review the film. As the roof began to fall, Daly managed to escape to the lobby and then a pay phone at a People’s Drug Store across the street, where he called his boss before returning to report on the scene.

“With a roar, mighty as the crack of doom,” Daly later wrote in his 5,000-word dispatch, the crashing roof “entombed” the audience as suddenly “as the turning of an electric light.”

“No description will do justice to the awfulness of the tragedy,” he wrote. “Few except those wrought by war ever brought death as swiftly or mercilessly as it was dealt to the men, women and children caught last night like rats in a trap of masonry and ice.”

An army of rescue workers, soldiers and police swarmed the theater. Doctors, Daly wrote, as well as “gallant women of the neighborhood” who volunteered as nurses, also arrived. A makeshift hospital was set up in a nearby candy store, and a morgue was established across the street at a church.

A 19-year-old woman emerged from the rubble, her hair and clothing in disarray but her face somehow unmarked. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she insisted. Another survivor, identified as Georgetown University student James H. Davidson, 22, told The Post he saw from his balcony seat two girls “with their heads cut off.”

B.H. Covell had dropped his wife off at the theater and gone home, only to return when he learned about the disaster. As he waited outside the Knickerbocker, rescue workers brought out his wife, who died at his feet “without recognizing me.” Scott Montgomery and his date, Veronica Murphy, were trapped in their seats for 12 hours. She died there with her arm around him; he died later at the hospital.

Joseph Wade Beal, married just five days before, was crushed in his seat in the orchestra, where he played violin. His love for the instrument had been encouraged by his father, Benjamin Beal, a one-armed newspaper telegraph operator who himself would die a year later, his health ravaged by grief.

At one point, according to a Post account, the Rev. John Floersch gave final rites to the victims, walking “knee deep” into the snow and rubble “from which sounded the groans and shrieks of the dying.”

There were lawsuits and recriminations and an investigation that found design flaws in the building. But Crandall and Geare were cleared of all charges. When Crandall killed himself in 1937, he left behind a note to the “newspaper boys.”

“Don’t be too hard on me, boys, not for my sake but for those I’m leaving behind me,” he wrote. “I’m despondent and miss my theater, oh, so much.”

Tom Barnes was a youngster, maybe 7 or 8, when he said he learned about his great-grandparents dying at the Knickerbocker. His grandfather was still alive at the time, he recalled, but he cannot remember ever asking him about it.

“I heard about it from my mother and grandmother,” he said. “They would talk about what an awful, horrible accident it was. I don’t recall my grandfather ever speaking about it. In any family, there are certain no-talk zones.”

He also heard that his great-aunt Mary, then 13, had been asleep at the time of the collapse. It was the family’s driver, a Black man whose name Barnes knows only as “Chapman,” who told Mary that her parents were dead.

Nine days after the collapse, the Washington Evening Star published a letter that attorney Paul E. Johnson had written to a congressman in which he described the site as having been “sanctified by the blood of so many of our useful citizens.”

“This hallowed spot should be a beautiful place of rest and relaxation,” Johnson wrote. “Anything else would be a profanity.”

A year later, Crandall rebuilt the theater, maintaining its largely undamaged exterior walls and renaming it the Ambassador, which stayed open until the late 1960s. In 1967, patrons could score tickets to a Hendrix show for all of $1.50.

A wrecking ball demolished the Ambassador in 1970, after which a bank was built on part of the site, leaving a small public plaza on the rest. If he could have his way, Barnes said, the Knickerbocker’s facade would be rebuilt to honor the site’s history, though not with a theater on the inside.

“A library would make wonderful sense,” he said. “There’s nothing sacred about that plaza.”

Whatever is built in the future, Al Jirikowic said he fears that the wrong kind of project will reawaken the “Knickerbocker curse,” which could “come back and bite you like a fire-breathing dragon.”

“It should be a living memorial, something that mirrors what was lost,” Jirikowic said, adding that he would leave it to others to figure out what that something should be.