Greater Greater Washington

Lost Washington:The Knickerbocker Theater

The Knickerbocker Theateronce located at the southwest corner of Columbia Road and 18th Street, NWwas 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
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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 lives in the Park View neighborhood, and is the force behind the blog Washington Kaleidoscope

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At Congressional Cemetery there is a headstone of a victim of the collapse. As I recall, the stone states "Knickerbocker disaster" and indicates that the victim was a member of the orchestra.

by gern on Jul 7, 2009 5:42 pm • linkreport

May they all rest in peace... And let,s hope something like this awfull tragedy never will happend again..

Never forget the past!! That is importaint to know the past to understand the future/present time..

Anita.

by anicath on Jan 3, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

Gotta agree with David that the bank there is there now is an abomination--and right in the heart of Adams Morgan! I lived in the neighborhood for several years in the '80s and '90s and a suburban-style, drive-through bank in the epicenter of the community was about as useful as the proverbial teats on a bull.
On the other hand, the neighborhood could have fared much, much worse. Urban renewal plans from the '60s would have blasted a freeway (the "inner Beltway") roughly along the path of Florida Avenue and replaced the turreted townhouses of 18th Street with something that looked like Crystal City, VA.
So I guess you gotta count your blessings.

by stewie on Feb 6, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

Mention has been made above that the organist was playing just prior to the roof caving in. Judging by the photograph taken from the roof area, looking at the ruins of the stage, it seems evident that the house did not have a pipe organ. There is no visible signs of a smashed console in the wreckage nor are there any organ grills visible on either side wall. A picture, taken of the Knickerbocker auditorium probably prior to its opening, shows a piano located in the pit center stage with places for 11 - 12 musicians on either side.

by Jeff on Mar 25, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

MY FATHER, PAUL D. CRANDALL, WHO WAS BORN IN WASHINGTON IN 1896 AND DIED THERE IN 1973, TOLD ME HE WAS PASSING THE THEATER JUST AFTER THE COLLAPSE AND STAYED TO PULL SOME OF THE SURVIVORS OUT OF THE WRECKAGE. THE MAN IN THE LONG COAT AND HAT RUNNING AT THE BOTTOM RIGHT OF THE THIRD SINGLE PICTURE LOOKS VERY LIKE HIM. HARRY CRANDALL WAS HIS FIRST COUSIN.

by Paula M. Crandall on Jul 27, 2013 7:46 am • linkreport

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