The Knickerbocker Theater: Death Trap 1922

The collapse of the Knickerbocker Theater's roof in Washington, DC on the evening of January 28, 1922 brought tragedy not only to all those inside, but also to its owner and architect.

The Knickerbocker Theater once stood on the southeast corner of Eighteenth Street and Columbia Road. It was built in 1917 for the Knickerbocker Theater Company, owned by Harry Crandall, who would also purchase the Beacon Apartment building on Calvert Street in 1920.  When it was completed, the Knickerbocker Theater was the largest theater of its kind in Washington, D.C.  In addition to serving as a movie theater, it also served as a concert and lecture hall, with ballrooms, luxurious parlors and lounges.

Harry Crandall's ill-fated Knickerbocker Theater at 18th and Columbia Road.  Library of Congress.

The Knickerbocker Theater was designed by architect Reginald Wyckliffe Geare, who, after his marriage in 1915, built a house for himself at 2328 Twentieth Street, NW in Kalorama Triangle, just a few blocks from the theater.

The great snowstorm of 1922 became known as the Knickerbocker Storm.  Photo: Underwood and Underwood.

On January 27, 1922, Washington experienced its largest snowstorm on record.  By the next morning, the total snowfall had reached eighteen inches, and when the storm tapered off the next morning, the official total was twenty-eight inches.  Temperatures stayed in the low to mid-twenties during most of the storm.

On the evening of January 28, 1922, seeking a respite from the cold and snow, local residents flocked to the Knickerbocker to see the 1921 silent movie Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. The roof of the Knickerbocker was flat, which, along with low temperatures during the storm, allowed the snow to accumulate on the roof throughout the storm. 

A still from the movie Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford - the last movie 98 Washingtonians would ever see.  From Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art (1922).  Internet Archive.

During the intermission of the movie, the weight of the snow split the roof down the middle, bringing down the balcony as well as a portion of an exterior brick wall, burying dozens of people.  People with lanterns frantically attempted to rescue victims of the disaster.  By midnight, 200 rescue workers were on the scene, and that number increased to more than 600 by 2:30 a.m.  Nearby residents, including the theater’s architect, Reginald Geare, helped pull bodies from the debris and feed the rescuers.  Geare’s knowledge of the building’s design was invaluable in the rescue work. The Christian Science Church on Columbia Road became a temporary morgue.  In all, 98 people were killed and 133 injured, many of whom were residents of Kalorama Triangle.  This disaster still ranks as one of the worst in Washington, D.C. history, and the storm is still known as the Knickerbocker Storm.

Interior of the Knickerbocker Theater the next morning.  Library of Congress.

Front page headlines of The Washington Post, January 29, 1922.

In 1922, Reginald Geare, along with four other men, was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter.  Geare was charged with failing to draw the plans and designs of the theater in a skillful manner and failing to exercise general direction and supervision of work on the building while it was being constructed. Although none of the five men was convicted, Geare’s career as an architect was destroyed by the disaster. Although he fought to reestablish his career, he could not recover from the blow and committed suicide in 1927 by turning on the gas in an attic room at his home at 3047 Porter Street, NW.  

The Atlanta Constitution, August 21, 1927

Harry Crandall committed suicide in 1937 after he lost his comeback project in Cleveland Park that had ultimately opened as Warner Brothers’ new Uptown Theater the year before.

Harry Crandall. Exhibitors Herald, April 24, 1920

The site of the Knickerbocker Theater became the location of the former Suntrust Bank.  Over the years, the open plaza in front of the building became a neighborhood fixture.  The site is now slated to become a PN Hoffman-built condominium building with plans to leave a smaller amount of open public space in front.

The former Sun Trust Bank building stands on the site of the Knickerbocker Theater. 

PN Hoffman plans for the former SunTrust Plaza.  Image: PN Hoffman