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Former Representative Andrew Barchfeld Dies in the Knickerbocker Theater Disaster

January 28, 1922
Former Representative Andrew Barchfeld Dies in the Knickerbocker Theater Disaster Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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After an unsuccessful bid for a Pittsburgh-based House seat in 1902, Andrew Jackson Barchfeld of Pennsylvania won his first of six terms in the House two years later.
On this date, Andrew Jackson Barchfeld, a former House Member from Pennsylvania, died alongside nearly 100 other people in one of the worst weather-related disasters in the history of the District of Columbia. A winter storm had dropped more than two feet of snow on the city, bringing it to a near standstill. Nevertheless, the upscale Knickerbocker Theater—built in 1917 at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road in Northwest Washington—went forward with two Saturday performances of the comedy Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, a silent movie with an orchestral accompaniment. During the 9:00 p.m. showing, the theater’s roof collapsed under the weight of the thick snowfall, killing Barchfeld, his daughter-in-law, and 96 other people; another 133 were injured. A Pittsburgh native who became a physician and hospital executive, Barchfeld had risen through the Steel City’s Republican Party and eventually won a western Pennsylvania House seat in 1904. During his 12 years in Congress, he focused on manufacturing, infrastructure, and foreign policy—serving on commissions to Brussels, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal. After he lost re-election in 1916, he and his wife took up permanent residence in Washington. When the House met a few days after the disaster, Barchfeld’s former colleagues remembered him warmly. “We deplore the loss of that life in its full, rounded manhood, with many years of usefulness in prospect to his State and to his country,” mourned Pennsylvanian Benjamin Focht. “The Members and friends who knew him bow in deep regret.” Barchfeld’s remains were interred in Pittsburgh’s South Side Cemetery. The Knickerbocker Theater disaster drew national attention and generated widespread calls for an investigation into the incident. Although one U.S. Representative proposed that a select subcommittee of the House District of Columbia Committee look into the disaster, congressional efforts to uncover what happened stalled after prosecutors launched a separate criminal investigation. Five individuals were indicted for manslaughter, but the cases were dismissed because the government failed to “show the exact cause for the catastrophe and the man or men directly responsible.” The disaster eventually led to new building regulations in the District as well as a new inspection process. Rebuilt from the ruins of the Knickerbocker, the Ambassador Theater operated from 1923 to 1969.

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