It was a seemingly inconsequential homework assignment that saved Charles Lyman III’s life on a frigid night in January 1922.
Then a 14-year-old prep school student, Lyman was visiting family in Washington, D.C. when a major storm buried the city under almost two and a half feet of snow. On Saturday, January 28—the second day of the blizzard—Lyman’s cousin David suggested spending a cozy evening watching a movie at the Knickerbocker Theatre in nearby Lanier Heights (now known as Adams Morgan). Lyman told him to go ahead with a friend, Kirkland Duke, and promised to join the pair after finishing his schoolwork.
Trudging through the snow about a half block away from the theater, Lyman heard a sudden boom followed by a chorus of terrified screams. The Knickerbocker’s roof had come crashing down, overwhelmed by the weight of the record-breaking snowfall.
In total, the collapse killed 98 people—including David and Kirkland—and injured another 133. According to Kevin Ambrose, author of a 2013 book on the blizzard, the tragedy marked the city’s deadliest single-day disaster. A century later, however, the Knickerbocker Theatre remains little known among the denizens of the nation’s capital.
“It’s not common knowledge now,” says Ambrose. “It was a horrendous disaster at the time … and [publicized] widely. But over the years, it’s slowly been forgotten.”
Lyman, who became a rear admiral in the United States Navy and lived to the age of 69, was a “very even-keeled kind of person” and didn’t express much emotion about the tragedy, says his daughter, 92-year-old Marge Miller. But he did tell his family the basic facts about what would later be dubbed the Knickerbocker Storm in honor of the fallen theater.
The blizzard started out as a slow-moving, low-pressure system centered off the Atlantic coast. It traveled north from Georgia, walloping Virginia to the Carolinas, and dumped the heaviest snow—a record 28 inches—on the D.C. area. Though the region has experienced severe snowstorms in the decades since (during the so-called Snowmageddon of February 2010, Dulles International Airport measured 32 inches of accumulation), the loss of life caused by the theater collapse makes the Knickerbocker Storm the worst in D.C.’s history, according to Ambrose.
By the night of January 28, the blizzard had started to wind down. Braving the snow, more than 200 people walked to the theater to watch a silent comedy, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, that has since been lost. Moviegoers paid 25 cents for admission to the Knickerbocker, which Ambrose calls the Titanic of Washington theaters at the time, both for its elegant style and its fatal vulnerabilities to the forces of nature.
“It was the most opulent and luxurious theater in D.C., and it was in a very high-end part of town,” he says.
Opened to great fanfare on October 13, 1917, the Knickerbocker had a seating capacity of 1,700 and boasted both a movie screen and a stage, where a live orchestra played music to accompany the silent film of the day. On the night of the collapse, only about 11 of the 20 musicians showed up to the 9 p.m. showing.
Just after intermission, audience members heard a loud hissing noise that some described as the sound of sheets ripping. The Knickerbocker’s flat roof, burdened by the heavy weight of the wet snow, was starting to split down the middle. A small dust cloud started leaking from a crack in the ceiling above the stage but went unnoticed by most attendees. The orchestra kept on playing until the unthinkable happened.
“In a split second, the entire roof came down in one piece,” Ambrose says. “It was the worst-case scenario.”
The Sunday Star described the collapse in vivid terms: “Came a hiss—a terrific crash—the rattle and clatter of falling timber, stone, steel and plaster. … A stillness, an unearthly pause, followed the din. Then a scream, an agonized cry, a moan. Beneath tons of steel and masonry scores of men, women and children were buried.”
The falling roof struck the theater’s balcony and knocked down chunks of the brick walls. It hit the floor so forcefully that a gust of compressed air blew out the doors and windows, ejecting at least two people outside and inadvertently saving their lives. Other audience members were killed instantly or trapped under the rubble of concrete, twisted steel beams, bricks and plaster. In one haunting case, rescuers found an unidentified man who’d escaped the collapse physically unscathed, protected by steel beams that buckled upward to form an air pocket, but died of an apparent heart attack.
Future World War II general George S. Patton, then a major in the U.S. Army, led the rescue effort. He was recovering from an allergic reaction to seafood when he was called out of bed to coordinate the complicated undertaking. The initial scene was chaotic, with survivors and volunteers on the street scrambling to pull people out of the rubble. By midnight, 200 police officers, soldiers and firefighters were on the scene; by 6:30 a.m., their numbers had ballooned to 600. A fleet of ambulances from Walter Reed Army Medical Center helped evacuate the injured, and every hospital in the area was filled with Knickerbocker victims.
Several thousand onlookers gathered near the theater to watch in horror. According to news reports, local residents provided hot food and coffee for rescuers and blankets and wraps for the injured. Many nearby houses and stores were converted into temporary first-aid stations.
The rescue effort continued into the afternoon of Sunday, January 29. That day, news of the tragedy hit front pages around the world.
Among the tragedy’s victims was Agnes Mellon, a clerk at the National Geographic Society who rushed into the Knickerbocker with her boyfriend, James Hoffman, just as the roof collapsed. She was crushed to death, but he was blown out into the lobby and survived. In an ironic turn of events, Mellon’s body was identified in the morgue by her khaki knickerbockers (a type of baggy breeches). Another attendee, orchestra conductor Ernesto Natiello, died instantly; his wife, Mary, survived with minor injuries, but his best friend’s 9-year-old son died later that night.
Violin player Joseph Beal was enjoying the fourth day of his honeymoon when Natiello talked him into joining the orchestra on the night of the collapse. Beal’s new bride, Margaret, opted to stay home. When she received news of her husband’s death the following morning, she was inconsolable.
Perhaps the most tragic Knickerbocker stories are those of its youngest victims, including Charles Lyman’s 17-year-old cousin, David. A star athlete, he played baseball and basketball at Western High School. Most Saturdays, David and his teammates stopped by the Knickerbocker after their ballgames.
According to David’s nephew Frank, now an 84-year-old living in Bridgewater, New Jersey, his family never discussed the tragic loss. David was a leader in the community: athletic, smart and very good-looking. “[He] was the pride and joy of the family,” Frank says. “... It must have been a terrible blow.”
Frank’s grandmother hired her brother, lawyer William D. Trenholm, to sue the Knickerbocker Theatre for negligence. But none of the families of the Knickerbocker victims received compensation despite filing multiple lawsuits. Miller remembers hearing about the financial hardship the situation caused: David’s father died one year after his son, and the family initially lacked the resources to purchase tombstones for both of them.
Because the Knickerbocker met the building codes of the time, the courts declined to hold any one party liable for the collapse. Still, the tragedy brought attention to potentially unsafe building codes and practices. Congress, the city and the courts conducted an investigation that concluded the theater had faulty construction. A grand jury indicted Knickerbocker architect Reginald W. Geare and four others on criminal manslaughter charges, but they were never convicted. Both Geare and Harry Crandall, owner of the Knickerbocker and a host of other local theaters, later died by suicide.
The Knickerbocker collapse, the investigation and the public outcry that followed led to improvements in D.C. building codes that helped prevent other tragedies like it. These updated regulations mandated the use of steel I-beams and better support for roofs. At the Knickerbocker, the steel roof beams rested directly on top of the brick walls; under the weight of the snow, says Ambrose, the beams quickly broke free from the walls.
In September 1923, a new venue—the Ambassador Theatre—opened at the site of the razed Knickerbocker Theatre. After more than four decades in operation, the Ambassador was demolished in 1969. A SunTrust bank eventually rose in its place.
Today, the site, located at the bustling intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road Northwest, is home to a plaza. Developers hoping to construct a condo building on the lot have faced resistance from local activists who cite its importance to the community, particularly the unhoused.
A small historical marker installed across the street from the square in 2006 is the only visible commemoration of the Knickerbocker tragedy in Adams Morgan. Interestingly, the “history” section of a webpage dedicated to the plaza mentions the Ambassador Theatre but omits the Knickerbocker.
Josh Gibson, founder of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District (BID), points out that the Knickerbocker story “was the banner headline in the New York Times” on January 29, 1922. The co-author of the 2006 book Adams Morgan (Then and Now), he says, “It definitely got nationwide attention … but it sort of slipped in modern memory.”
Gibson adds, “It’s not ‘George Washington slept here’ kind of stuff, but it doesn’t make it any less fascinating or any less important to learn the back story.”
This year, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, Ambrose and Gibson plan to host a memorial service at the intersection across from the site of the Knickerbocker. On Friday, January 28, at 6 p.m., the pair will read a list of the victims’ names and light 98 candles—one for each of the deceased.
“We’ll have a brief historical snapshot of what happened,” Gibson tells the Washington Post. “Then we’ll read the names of the victims. We're not sure if that’s ever been done, to be honest.”
A separate group, Neighbors for the Knickerbocker Memorial, will host another anniversary service in the plaza on Saturday, January 29, from 12 to 3 p.m. According to a statement, the ceremony will conclude with the dedication of a memorial sculpture honoring the tragedy’s victims.