History Prior to the Plaza

The Knickerbocker & Ambassador Theaters

The site was originally the home of the beautiful Knickerbocker Theater, designed by local architect Reginald Geare in 1915 and owned by DC theatre operator Henry Crandall , who also later built the Tivoli Theater which still stands in Columbia Heights.  On January 28, 1922, the night after the worst snowstorm recorded in DC to that point which deposited over two feet of snow on the region, the Knickerbocker opened for business. Tragically, during the movie intermission, under the weight of so much snow the badly constructed roof collapsed, “crushing 98 [to death], and severely injuring 133 more” according to a Washington Post article which said it was the worst DC disaster in 50 years.  Among the dead was medical doctor and Pennsylvania Congressman Andrew Jackson Barchfeld. Local station WETA aired the following silent footage of the aftermath of the disaster in 1990.

The 1922 blizzard became known thereafter as the Knickerbocker Storm.  Architect Geare killed himself in 1927 and Owner Crandall did likewise in 1937.

A year after the tragedy, in 1923, the facade of the theater was salvaged and rebuilt into the Ambassador Theatre, which remained open until 1968.  Interestingly, in its final year, the theatre was rented by a trio of rock and roll promoters calling themselves the Psychedlic Power & Light Company, and they hosted a number of well known rock and roll acts including Jimi Hendrix for five nights in August of 1967.  Here is a photo of the concert poster.

Jimi_Hendrix_Ambassador_Theatre_poster

After the Ambassador closed, it was purchased by local investors JB and Maurice Shapiro, according to this May 1976 Washington Post article, which also details how they then sold the site to Citadel Corporation in 1974, which tried and failed under heavy community opposition to put a BP or Shell gas station on ths site, and then sold it to Perpetual Federal Savings for $350,000.  We have tried to locate any building or demolition permits for both the Knickerbocker and Ambassador Theatres, and neither are in the city’s Washingtoniana archive.

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