Weatherwatch: the tragic Knickerbocker snowstorm of 1922

A hundred years ago, on 27 January 1922, a major snowstorm hit the region around Washington DC, depositing more than 71cm (28 inches) of snow. This was an unusually heavy fall, and tragedy was to follow.

The Knickerbocker theatre had a full house of 900 people for a new silent movie, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. One of the newest and largest cinemas in the city, the Knickerbocker had an unusual flat roof.

At 9pm, the movie commenced. Then, without warning, with no cracking or creaking, the roof gave way under the weight of snow. It collapsed and brought down the balcony inside the theatre.

Hundreds of soldiers assisted in recovering victims from the rubble. Ninety-eight people were crushed to death and many more injured, including a violinist in the orchestra whose arm had to be amputated.

Movie theatres in the capital were shut down for inspection and building codes quickly updated with a requirement for steel beams to support flat roofs.

The construction of the Knickerbocker was flawed, and both the architect and the building’s owner later killed themselves. However, litigation failed and neither the victims nor their families ever received compensation.

The storm later became known as the Knickerbocker snowstorm, and any heavy snowfall in Washington triggered speculation about another building collapse.


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