Bold Ventures by Charlotte van den Broeck review – architects of their own demise

A poetic tale of 13 flawed buildings that spelled catastrophe for their designers

Late afternoon, Friday 27 January 1922. The sky unzipped and snow began to fall in Washington DC. It came down steadily all night and right through the next day, shrouding the city. Trains were evacuated, cars abandoned in the street. By 8pm on Saturday, 28 inches had fallen. Undaunted, 300 citizens decided to brave the translated streets to see the silent film Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford at Crandall’s Knickerbocker theatre, a picture house so luxurious that the chairs in the orchestra pit were upholstered in silk. The audience howled as Wallingford sat on a tack. A second later the entire roof collapsed under the accumulated weight of snow, coming down in a single slab of stone and steel and crushing the people below. Ninety-eight died and more were mutilated or injured.

This sounds like the very definition of an act of God, but the coroner’s hearing concluded that the disaster was a consequence of faulty design on the part of the architect, Reginald Geare, who had failed to correctly recalculate the load-bearing capacity of steel after the contractor, Harry Crandall, insisted on a last-minute change to cheaper material. Five years later, Geare took his own life. In 1937 Crandall too killed himself. In his heyday, he had run a whole chain of cinemas, and in a letter explaining his decision, he wrote: “Only it is I’m despondent, and miss my theaters, oh so much.”

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