Before Willis Slater, the first Director of Fritz Engineering Laboratory, came to Lehigh, he was an engineer physicist for the United States Bureau of Standards. In this job, he took on some of the biggest civil engineering problems and investigations in the country. One investigation stood out due to both the causes of it and the deadly repercussions of the event.
It is a known fact that any engineer should try to keep a balance between budgeting money for a project and having the final product be safe for public use. When saving money becomes more important than guaranteeing safety, disaster follows. On the evening of January 28th, 1922 a comedy film was playing at the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington D.C. The theater had a small audience that night due to a heavy snowstorm that had been progressing since the previous night. The stage was set for one of the worst disasters in the United States at the time. At around 9:00PM, the roof began to buckle on the theater and then collapsed in. Ninety-seven people died in the collapse and it was considered a miracle that two-thirds of the audience survived.
Willis Slater was called in to investigate the cause of this tragedy. His notes, diagrams, and measurements can all be seen in the new collection, located in Lehigh’s Special Collections, featuring him and his work. The conclusions from the investigations were appalling to the public. They found that the engineer who had designed the theater had placed the whole budget and construction planning into the hands of the contractor and the architect. They wanted to save money so they under reinforced the roof of the theater, didn’t fire proof it, made the walls too thin, and committed thirteen other building violations that contributed to the collapse. The fallout of this event drastically decreased public trust in engineers and architects and would help to form better laws for construction and safety.
Written account by Willis Slater of the investigation of the collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C., 1922
By Kevin Augustyn