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On Jan. 28, 1922, the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in what is today Adams Morgan collapsed under the weight of a blizzard’s snowfall, killing 98 people, including Rep. Andrew Jackson Barchfeld, a Pennsylvania Republican. Another 133 were injured in the theater, located on the southwest corner of 18th Street NW and Columbia Road.
The blizzard, eventually christened the Knickerbocker Storm after the theater it took down, remains the deadliest snowstorm to ever hit D.C. in the modern era. By the time snow stopped falling the morning of Jan. 29, local authorities recorded a depth of 28 inches. (Rock Creek Park, not D.C.’s official weather station at the time, recorded a depth of 33 inches.)
Such snowfall was more than the flat-roofed Knickerbocker Theater could handle. That evening, audience-members at the 1,700 seat theater were watching Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, a silent comedy starring George M. Cohan. Just after intermission, around 9 p.m., the roof couldn’t take the strain anymore.
As The Washington Post reported the next day:
With a roar, mighty as the crack of dawn, the massive roof of the theater broke loose from its steel moorings and crushed down on the heads of those in the balcony… Under the weight of the falling roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was terrorized. It was as sudden as turning off an electric light.
Another reporter, formerly a correspondent during World War I, compared the disaster to a European battlefield. “Stark and grim as any ruin in the war-swept area of France or Belgium stood the walls of the Knickerbocker theater,” he wrote, according to Weather Book.
Those in the audience who hadn’t been pinned under the roof immediately fled, looking to find help.
George Brodie, who had entered the movie theater just before the collapse, later remembered how chaotic the scene had been:
I grabbed for my hat and coat, and the next minute found myself flat on my face with something weighty on top. I lay still for about five minutes when I noticed at the side of me a girl with an arch or pillar resting upon her. I tried to pull it off but couldn’t move it. Then I started working my way slowly in some direction—I think the middle—and with four other fellows we saw a hole with a light shining through. The next thing I know I was on the street, but I don’t know how I got there. I stayed around for a while and helped several others, who were apparently uninjured, out of the place. It was a frightful sight within, nothing but moans, cries and darkness.
Rescue efforts continued throughout the following morning, involving more than 200 police officers, as well as 600 rescue workers and volunteers. Pictures of the disaster and rescue efforts have been compiled by Weather Book.
The Knickerbocker’s collapse traumatized many, including both its builder and its owner. The building’s architect, Reginald Wyckliffe Geare, killed himself in 1927, his career destroyed by the disaster. Harry M. Crandall, the building’s owner since its 1917 opening as D.C.’s largest movie house, filled his apartment with gas in 1937.
In a note left to the “newspaper boys” he wrote: “Please don’t be too hard on me, boys, not for my sake but for those I am leaving behind me. I’m despondent, and miss my theater so much.”
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Photos courtesy Library of Congress