There was very little warning on the night of Jan. 28, 1922, of the horror that would descend. The Knickerbocker Theatre, in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, was showing “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.” The snow was falling hard outside. More than two feet of it was already on the ground.
At 9 p.m., moments after the silent film began, a crack appeared in the theater’s ceiling above the stage and auditorium. A small cloud of plaster dust emerged and spread over the orchestra pit. Then small chunks of ceiling plaster began to fall on the movie patrons below.
Most of the people in the theater remained focused on the show, not what was happening above them. Several people in the auditorium, however, including Washington Post drama critic John Jay Daly, sensed something terrible and ran for cover. He was one of the lucky ones.
Mere minutes later, the entire roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre pulled free of its walls and crashed to the ground in one piece, crushing the moviegoers below. The disaster killed 98 people and injured 133. It is among Washington’s most horrifying disasters.
When the roof fell, the snow depth was approaching 28 inches — a record that to this day has not been broken. The Knickerbocker Theatre’s roof was flat and was burdened by heavy snow, so the quick conclusion reached by many was the snow caused the collapse. But the theater was just five years old, and surely should have been able to support the weight.
Two weeks after the disaster, on Feb. 8, 1922, The Washington Post reported on results of an investigation into the roof collapse. It noted shoddy work. According to the article, a swaying wall was to blame, not the weight of the snow.
The Post described how the theater’s Columbia Road wall was not connected to the front stage wall. The two walls simply rested against one another.
During the heat of summer, the steel beams in the roof expanded, which pushed the Columbia Road wall away from the stage wall. It swayed away from the interior at the top, but not at the ground where the wall was connected to the theater’s foundation. During the cold winter months, when the roof’s steel beams contracted, the wall did not return to its original position. It stayed in place while the roof beams contracted and slid inward.
Over the course of five summers and winters, the Columbia Road wall was pushed out, or swayed, to such a degree that many of the roof beams had only two to three inches of load-bearing wall beneath them.
A month after the collapse, an architect report was published, declaring that the roof was faulty “in entirety,” according to The Post
“As to the immediate cause of the failure,” The Post quoted from the report, “there are so many evidences of weakness, so many faulty details of design, such as overstressed members of trusses, beams, columns, and so many poor connections that, in our opinion, they all contributed their share to the final collapse.”
After the first roof beam broke free from the wall on that disastrous evening, the others followed in quick succession. It was a total failure. The roof crashed to the ground with such velocity and force that the windows and doors of the theater were blown out by the compressed air inside the auditorium. The falling roof also collapsed the theater’s balcony.
Inside, the scene was horrific. Twisted steel beams and trusses, a collapsed balcony and boulder-sized heaps of roof material covered the entire theater floor. It took more than 24 hours for rescuers to extract the 98 bodies from the wreckage.
After multiple investigations, the courts could not determine who was ultimately to blame. The families of the deceased never received compensation for their losses.
With his reputation and career ruined, the architect of the Knickerbocker Theatre, Reggie Geare, committed suicide in 1927. Ten years later, the owner of the Knickerbocker Theatre, Harry Crandell, also committed suicide.
In the decades that followed, building codes, design practices and inspections improved, a process that was motivated in part by the national attention to the Knickerbocker collapse.