by HANNAH NEUHAUSER
In the 1980s, the Harry Ransom Center received a scrapbook from John and Vera Hills along with an extraordinary unpublished account of their survival of the Knickerbocker Theatre roof collapse in Washington, D.C. on January 28, 1922. The scrapbook and testimony are available for research in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. Graduate assistant Hannah Neuhauser offers these insights on the material.
We started out for an hour’s walk that was to last seven months and almost an eternity…
—FROM JOHN HILLS’S TESTIMONY
Vera Kreger Hills did not wish to go out on the evening of January 28, 1922. It was cold, brutally cold, and a whirring blizzard encased Washington D.C in over two feet of snow.
The weather did not deter her husband, Captain John Huntington Hills, however. He thought it “would be fun to take a stroll through the heavy snow.” After a few blocks, they passed by the Knickerbocker Theatre on 18th Street and Columbia Road. That night the theater was featuring a silent comedy, Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, that heralded good reviews.
Vera Kreger Hills preferred to finish their walk rather than go to the theatre, but consented to her husband’s idea. They had not been in the theatre for over a year. They bought their tickets for 25 cents and took their familiar seats under the balcony in the second row. Unbeknownst to the couple at the time, their seating arrangement would save their lives.
A half hour into the show, white dust from the ceiling began to drift down like fallen snow. Without warning, the entire roof collapsed. Those in the furthest rows were blown into the safety of the lobby. Audience members caught under the rubble either died instantly or were buried among the ruins. John Jay Daly, a fellow survivor and local theatre critic, poetically remarked in his report for The Washington Post, “Crandall’s Knickerbocker theatre, previously the temple of mirth, had been transformed into a tomb.”
Kevin Ambrose, author of The Knickerbocker Snowstorm and Knickerbocker Stories, marks the Knickerbocker Theatre collapse as the deadliest single-day natural disaster in the city’s history. To date, Washington D.C has yet to witness a worse snowstorm. In a matter of moments, 98 lives were lost, and 133 were found injured.
John and Vera Hills were among the latter, trapped under the rubble. John was pinned under the balcony concrete, his legs broken, but otherwise free to move. Vera could barely wave her head. Her injuries resulted in a cracked collarbone, a broken right leg, a paralyzed left, and severe bruises. In his survival testimony dated June 27, 1957, Hills remarks, “Had we selected one row ahead, we would have been killed, and one row back, our injuries would have been minor.”
To date, Washington D.C has yet to witness a worse snowstorm. In a matter of moments, 98 lives were lost, and 133 were found injured.
From John’s position, he could view only one person—a young woman who called to him for help throughout the evening, believing him to be a soldier. She was planted a row ahead, her date sprawled dead across her lap. By assessing John’s testimony in dialog with the accounts in Ambrose’s Knickerbocker Stories, it is deduced that this young woman was the local Girl Scout Troop leader, Helen Hopkins, and her deceased date was a beloved family friend by the name of Fred Ernest. They sat in an elevated opera box and were propelled from it during the collapse to the stage floor, lying next to Preston Bradley, a fellow survivor. It was his name listed in the missing newspaper column from the Hills scrapbook at the Harry Ransom Center that aided in this connection.
Although some manner of aid would have arrived from the police and fellow civilians, the Navy forces may not have been as rapidly organized and dispatched without the Hills’s familial connections—namely, Vera’s father, Colonel E. A. Kreger. It was Colonel Kreger who initiated the request for aid to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt Junior, and General Pershing. General Pershing took immediate charge of relief operations, mobilizing nearby officer units to begin searching for those injured until reinforcements and equipment from the Navy Yard arrived to rescue those buried deeper in the theatre.
While the Hills recovered at the Walter Reed Medical Hospital, numerous families were suing the Knickerbocker Theatre for up to $2,000,000 in damages. None of the families were compensated for their losses. The court’s investigation affirmed that the building was up to code and there was “no evidence of deterioration in the material” (New York Times, 1922). Upon further inspection, architects discovered that the roof’s steel beams, which lay flat atop the bricks, weakened and broke under the weight of the snow. Building codes were immediately updated following the tragedy, and steel I-beams were implemented to secure a roof’s stability.
Despite the great impact and mass terror that the Knickerbocker Theatre collapse caused, public acknowledgement of the event is minimal. The Knickerbocker’s owner, Harry Crandall, built a second theatre, the Ambassador, in the exact spot less than two years after the tragedy. The Ambassador stood in operation until its financial collapse in 1969. Today, the sole public indicator of this historical catastrophe is a small plaque in Adams Morgan square.
John and Vera Hills’s scrapbook and surviving testimonies offer crucial insight into a nearly forgotten disaster, one that has foreshadowed the inevitable decay of today’s long-standing playhouses. As London’s historic theatres undergo similar structural damages resulting in updated inspections and egregious losses of revenue, the haunting memory of the Knickerbocker Theatre lingers.
For more information on the Knickerbocker Theatre collapse and memorial services, please visit the Knickerbocker Memorial website.
Ambrose, Kevin. Knickerbocker Stories. Historical Enterprises, 2021.
Daly, Jay John. “Hundreds Dead or Injured Buried Under Ruins as Knickerbocker Theater Collapses; Rescuers Battle Storm That Paralyzes City.” The Washington Post, January 29, 1922.
Hills, Captain John Huntington. “The Knickerbocker Theater Disaster,” June 27, 1957.
Marshall, Alex. “Ceilings in London Theaters Keep Falling Down.” The New York Times, November 26, 2019.
Neighbors for the Knickerbocker Memorial. Knickerbocker Memorial. January 29, 2022. https://www.knickerbockermemorial.com.
Samenow, Jason. “The Knickerbocker Snowstorm: Inside insights on D.C.’s deadliest disaster.” The Washington Post. January 28, 2013.
“Theater Wreck Inquires Stated: Senate Will Act.” The New York Times. January 31, 1922.
“40 or More Killed and Scores Injured When Knickerbocker Theater Caves In.” Evening Star col. 1, Washington, DC. January 29, 1922.