One hundred years ago, on January 28, 1922, the worst peacetime single-day loss of life in the history of the District of Columbia occurred when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre collapsed under the weight of a record 28 inches of snow, killing 98 people.
A century later, on January 28, 2022, we will commemorate the disaster and remember the victims.
When: Friday January 28, 2022 at 6PM
Where: The public plaza at 1801 Adams Mill Road, NW (near the bulletin board kiosk so we can look to the opposite corner where the Knickerbocker once stood)
What: The history of the theater and the snowstorm will be outlined. In a powerful gesture, for the first time in perhaps a century, the names of the tragedy’s 98 victims will be read aloud, and their stories will be discussed. Hand-held candles will be available to light and remember the victims.
Located at the southwest corner of the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road, in the heart of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, the Knickerbocker was one of the District’s marquee movie theaters. Built in 1915 and opened in 1917, the theater had a seating capacity of 1,700. The theater was incredibly opulent, and included a refreshment parlor, dancing promenade, a Japanese tea room, a ladies’ reception room, and a men’s smoking lounge.
Unfortunately, the theater also included an architectural Achilles heel: a poorly-designed roof that, over time, was barely resting on the edge of the adjoining wall. When 28 inches of
snow (a record back then that still remains in place today) fell across two days, culminating on January 28, the combined weight of the snow led to the collapse of the roof, which in turn brought down the theater’s balcony onto those seated beneath it.
On the night of the 28th, the feature film was a comedy, “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.” Among the 300 individuals in attendance was the Washington Post’s drama columnist, John Jay Daly. Transformed into a breaking-news reporter, his breathless 5,000-word description of the day’s events captured every bit of the disaster’s tragedy and emotion.
“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. 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. […] 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.”
Josh Gibson loves to study and collect both DC history in general and Adams Morgan history in particular. He is the co-author of the book “Adams Morgan: Then and Now,” co-chair of the former Adams Morgan Heritage Trail Working Group, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, founder of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, co-founder of the neighborhood listserv…and an Adams Morgan resident.
Kevin Ambrose is a freelance writer and photographer for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. He is also the author of “Knickerbocker Stories,” “The Knickerbocker Snowstorm,” “Washington Weather,” and “Blizzards and Snowstorms of Washington, D.C.” Ambrose holds a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Virginia, and his interests include weather, history, archeology, and running.
About the Adams Morgan Partnership BID:
The Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District is a nonprofit organization focused on enhancing the quality of life for businesses, commercial property owners, residents, visitors, and employees in the District of Columbia’s most vibrant and eclectic neighborhood. The Partnership provides daily street cleaning, fun neighborhood events, and creative marketing and economic development initiatives. Adams Morgan is world-renowned for its fantastic restaurants and nightlife, colorful retail stores and historic, tree-lined residential streets. The American Planning Association named Adams Morgan one of the top 10 neighborhoods in America.