Adams Morgan vigil marks 100th anniversary of Knickerbocker Theatre disaster

WTOP's Jason Fraley marks 100 years since the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster (Part 1)

Exactly 100 years ago, D.C. suffered its deadliest single-day peacetime disaster when the Knickerbocker Theatre roof collapsed under a record 28 inches of snow, killing 98 people.

On Friday, Adams Morgan will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy by holding a candlelight vigil starting at 6 p.m. on the plaza at 1801 Adams Mill Road, Northwest.

“We’ll read the names of the 98 victims with candlelight, ringing a bell for each victim,” Historian Josh Gibson told WTOP. “We might get snow Friday … so that’s kind of eerie.”

Located on the southwest corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, the Knickerbocker Theatre opened in 1917. The opulent 1,700-seat venue featured a refreshment parlor, dancing promenade, tea room, men’s smoking lounge and women’s reception room.

“There was a big, glorious, old-style movie palace … think The Uptown on steroids,” Gibson said. “There were people on dates, parents who brought their children.”

On Jan. 28, 1922, audiences turned out to see the silent comedy flick “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” starring Sam Hardy (“King Kong”) and directed by two-time Oscar winner Frank Borzage (“7th Heaven”). Just after intermission, the unimaginable happened.

“It was a silent movie, so an orchestra was playing,” Gibson said. “There was a total mix of Washingtonians there. All of a sudden, in the middle of the movie, they heard a large crack and the roof detached almost intact and fell into the building. On the way down, the balcony came down onto the main auditorium. It was an incredible amount of carnage.”

The flat roof couldn’t withstand the 28 inches of snow dumped by a two-day blizzard that would be dubbed The Knickerbocker Storm of 1922, forever tied to the theater disaster.

“D.C. had the worst snowstorm it ever had,” Gibson said. “Rescue efforts were hampered by the nearly three feet of snow on the ground. Neighbors, residents, firemen, the military all scrambled and rallied to try to get people out of the building. … Fortunately, there were not as many people there as there normally would have been because of the snow.”

The rescue effort was led by future World War II General George Patton, who was still a major in the U.S. Army. The number of first responders grew from 200 at midnight to 600 by 6:30 a.m. as Walter Reed Army Medical Center sent ambulances to evacuate victims.

Among the 300 in the audience that day was The Washington Post drama columnist John Jay Daly, who was suddenly transformed into a breaking-news reporter on the scene.

“He had to rush to a phone across the street at a People’s Drugstore,” Gibson said. “Everyone wanted to use the phone and call family. ‘I dropped my kid off at the movie and I was just driving away and the roof collapsed! Oh my God, I need to call the police or fire department!’ Meanwhile, this Post critic is also on the phone trying to [relay] information.”

His article in The Washington Post was a dramatic 5,000-word description.

“With a roar, mighty as the crack of doom, the massive roof of the Knickerbocker broke loose from its steel moorings and crashed down upon the heads of those in the balcony,” Daly wrote. “Under the weight of the fallen roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was entombed. It was as sudden as the turning off of an electric light.”

“If possible, it was worse than hell,” Daly continued. “Prayers ascended from the lips of sordid sinners. Brave hearts railed at their own helplessness of the power stripped from them to do even one act of mercy. Weak men suddenly turned into giants, hoping to lift the rafters of a fallen temple of mirth and free the stricken beneath.”

The news coverage revealed tragic tales and shocking anecdotes.

“One guy, the roof … stopped right before it hit his head, but he died of a heart attack,” Gibson said. “Two people were sitting next to each other where one of them was crushed instantly and the other survived. Stories of people who were just about to enter the theater but the roof collapsed and it literally blew them through the lobby out into the street.”

Families were left stunned over fateful decisions to attend or not.

“Like all these terrible disasters, there’s stories of someone who hadn’t seen a movie in 10 years and this was the one that did them in,” Gibson said. “There’s other people who went every Friday and decided to skip one and it was this one. All kinds of crazy stories.”

In the aftermath, it was determined that the theater roof had dangerous structural flaws.

“One end was on a square surface and one end was on a rounded surface,” Gibson said. “It was not connected properly, so the roof slid off. Picture a house of cards. The top card was too close to the edge, it slipped down and the top card toppled into the building.”

Blamed for the roof collapse, renowned architect Reginald Geare and owner Harry Crandall would both commit suicide in 1927 and 1937, respectively.

“They held congressional hearings into what happened,” Gibson said. “Like every disaster that happens in D.C., it affected the nation, the president suspended all of his activities for the day, Congress investigated what happened, but at the end of the day it was really a hometown tragedy. The neighbors, the residents of Adams Morgan suffered the most.”

Ultimately, the collapse killed 98 people and injured 133.

“The loss of 98 lives in a single incident is by far the largest single-day loss of life in D.C. history from a civilian standpoint,” Gibson said. “During the [Civil War] Battle of Fort Stevens on Georgia Avenue, more people died that day, but that was obviously wartime.”

The tragedy of 9/11 threatened the record when 189 people died at The Pentagon, but that was technically in Virginia and arguably the beginning of wartime. In fact, Gibson was heading to a meeting downtown to discuss installing Heritage Trail markers on 9/11.

“I stepped off the bus by the Capitol and I heard someone say, ‘Oh my God, a plane just hit the Pentagon,” Gibson said. “The very first thought that came to my mind was, ‘I pray that the Knickerbocker remains the single highest loss of life in District history.'”

The building was eventually rebuilt and changed its name from the Knickerbocker Theatre to the Ambassador Theatre, which famously hosted movies, concerts and gatherings.

“The second theater has its own fascinating story,” Gibson said. “It became a concert theater during the ’60s. Jimi Hendrix played there and lit a guitar on fire. Norman Mailer spoke there to an anti-war crowd and then headed out to try to levitate The Pentagon.”

When the Ambassador Theatre was demolished in 1969, the community fought an effort to build a BP gas station. It eventually became a bank, which has since closed. Today, the site is slated for redevelopment with mixed-use retail on the bottom and apartments on top.

“People think of the national and international events that shape D.C., but they forget that D.C. is also a hometown,” Gibson said. “A lot of the neighborhood history gets forgotten, so [we take] any opportunity to unearth this local history and let folks know that fascinating or sometimes terrible history happened right there. … There’s history all around us.”

Give a moment of silence the next time you hit Adams Morgan for a night on the town.

“If you’re walking in and out of the neighborhood with a bunch of buddies, you’re not always going to stop and read the historical sign on the corner,” Gibson said. “The number of people who walk by 18th and Columbia on an average weekend night and have no clue that 98 people died just feet from where they’re walking … it’s a shame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley marks 100 years since the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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