Developer won't spare landmark city bowling alley

Duckpins: A plan to convert the Federal Hill building into trendy loft apartments strikes traditionalists and dedicated bowlers as a gutter ball.

September 23, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Federal Hill's historic Southway Bowling Center is closing to be converted into upscale loft apartments. And Alva Brown, duckpin hall-of-famer in the city where the sport was born, said it's a tragedy.

"Feel bad for the kids," said Brown, 78, who runs the 61-year-old southern Baltimore landmark with her son. "Where are they going to go?"

Duckpin bowling is a celebrated Baltimore pastime that, according to local lore, was invented at a Howard Street tavern a century ago by Orioles John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. They named the smaller pins "ducks" because they're squat and went flying when hit by the scaled-down ball.

The news of the closing of Southway - with its well-worn hardwood floors and National Bohemian clock on the wall - shook some Baltimoreans yesterday.

This is the place where generations of kids hung out, where leagues convened, where politicians glad-handed. Even Babe Ruth, legend has it, bowled here, on lanes 14 and 15.

"I'm devastated. I feel like it's a death in the family," said Susan Tobin, photographer for the Walters Art Gallery. "It's a critical part of Baltimore's fabric. Duckpin bowling is to Baltimore what crabs are to Baltimore."

The building, 1000 S. Charles St., has a CVS drugstore on the ground floor and the bowling alley on the top two.

The Fedder Co. of Glen Burnie sold the building this summer to Federal Hill Lofts LLC, a joint partnership of developers Patrick Turner of Henrietta Corp. and Glenn Charlow of Manekin Corp.

They plan to create nine 2,000-square-foot apartments with eight-foot skylights.

Turner, the man who plans to bring Crash Cafe, a disaster-theme restaurant, to Key Highway, said he'll start gutting the building in mid-October, and the units should be ready by May.

He called the conversion of the bowling alley into high-end New York-style lofts "just part of the yuppification of South Baltimore."

"Bowling is a dying industry," Turner said. "Change and evolution in communities is what makes them desirable."

Some South Baltimore folks, who over the past 25 years have watched the area go from neighborly and unfashionable to young and trendy, disagree with Turner.

"It's part of our history, and they want to rip it up and throw it away," said Gilda Johnson, vice president of the South Baltimore Improvement Committee, who grew up bowling at Southway. "It is as important to me as Cross Street Market."

Johnson wants to raise about $30,000, the amount she estimates it will cost to salvage Southway's 25 lanes and put them in storage "until we can figure out what to do with them."

At the peak of duckpin popularity in the 1960s, Baltimore had more than 1,200 lanes and numerous bowling centers. Now, there are few left.

Alva Brown has played at the two-story bowling center for 42 years. In 1964, her mastery of the lanes earned her the title "Number One Female Duckpin Bowler" in the country and induction into the Washington, D.C., National Duckpin Bowling Hall of Fame.

"My husband used to say, `If I want to see my wife I have to go to the bowling alley,'" she said.

As manager, Brown sees future duckpin stars during weekday league games, Friday night Rock and Bowl parties - and especially at the Saturday Morning Youth League, which begins at 10:30 sharp.

"Every Saturday morning, you see the kids sitting at the bottom of the steps at 9:30," said her son William "Rand" Brown, 53, Southway's mechanic.

Rand Brown says he and his mother were told by the building's owner that when it was sold, the bowling center would remain.

But Robert Pollokoff, president of Fedder, delivered the bad news to him last week.

Pollokoff said that, when he sold the building to Turner and Charlow, he thought they planned to keep the lanes intact, but then they realized that without a liquor license and parking, it wasn't economically feasible.

Besides offering Baltimore nostalgia, Southway gave people in the area a place to go, other than bars and restaurants.

"The movies have closed up. Unless you go to an Orioles or Ravens game, there's little for kids in South Baltimore to do," said Cynthia Griffin, president of the South Baltimore Improvement Committee, "at least until they get old enough to drink and go to the bars."

Even Pollokoff, the most recent owner, used to throw birthday and holiday parties at Southway.

"I'm disappointed it's ending," he said. "It is another piece of Baltimore nostalgia biting the dust."

Southway will be open until Friday, Oct. 13, when there will be a wedding reception, and then the Browns will lock the doors for good.

Until then, Rand Brown said, "We're totally in denial."

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