'Bowlarama' Exhibit at L.A.'s A+D Architecture and Design Museum Celebrates Bowling Architecture

Bowlerama - H 2014
Jordan Riefe

Bowlerama - H 2014

"Bowlarama: California Bowling Architecture 1954-1964" runs at L.A.'s A+D Architecture and Design Museum through May 11, revealing design plans from architects such as A. Quincy Jones and Paul Revere Williams.

You don’t have to bowl to love the bowling alley, especially if it’s one designed by the Long Beachfirm of Powers, Daly and DeRosa, kings of the pin palace. Their rise to prominence began in the fifties, a time of post-war optimism, freeway construction and futuristic fancy, all of which can be seen in their roughly 100 structures from the A-frame style Covina Bowl in West Covina to the swooping V-shaped Willow Grove Park Lanes in Pennsylvania, the world’s largest with 116 alleys.

Today, conservancy efforts are sometimes able to preserve a pin palace coffeeshop or a splashy roadside sign, but for the most part these symbols of fifties idealism are rapidly disappearing. Bowlarama: California Bowling Architecture 1954-1964 at Los Angeles’ A+D Architecture and Design Museum celebrates this disappearing style with design plans by some of the region’s most prestigious architects including A. Quincy Jones (UC Irvine) and Paul Revere Williams (LAX Theme Building), now through May 11.

“I think the problem with Los Angeles is it’s so spread out that you don’t know there’s a really great one in Covina, and there’s a really great one in Palos Verdes and there’s a really great one in Cucamonga,” curator Chris Nichols told the Hollywood Reporter about spotting mid-century milestones like Mar Vista Lanes, Pasadena’s Lucky Strike and Shatto 39 Lanes in Koreatown. “Since it’s not all lined up on La Cienaga, people in the city don’t know that we have all these great things hiding out in the suburbs.”

The impetus for this boom in eccentric design was the automatic pinsetter introduced in 1951. Up until then, pinsetters were transients or teenagers that got paid by the ball and often lived on the premises. But following World War II new technology allowed bowling alleys to stay open 24 hours in an era when one in four Americans bowled. Situated by the highway they afforded weary travellers a chance to stretch their legs.

Mid-century developments in the aerospace industry not only influenced the look of these places, but new plastics and resins were put to wide use by designers. As freeways began to spread across the country, a roadside business became a potentially lucrative concern for entrepreneurs. But to attract drivers they needed eye-catching designs at a budget. So they turned to mid-range firms like Powers, Daly and DeRosa or Armet-Davis, who designed coffee shops for Norm’s, Pann’s and Denny’s.

“You see it in graphic design you see it in theme park design, you see it in people that have the freedom to be extreme,” Nichols said of the distinctive roadside style. “Everything out of DeRosa was some expressive crazy gesture, an A-frame or an arch or a paraboloid or something. He loved the idea of making something stand up and not knowing how it stood up.”

Evocative though they were, pin palaces were frowned upon by the architectural establishment. But as they grew into community centers including barbershops, beauty parlors, daycare centers, restaurants and exotic cocktail lounges, many of the more prestigious firms like Case Study architects Killingsworth, Brady, Smith and Associates (Kahala Hilton) as well as LA’s largest firm, Welton Becket and Associates (Capitol Building), tried their hand at it, though with little success.

“They could build a ten-story hotel or an office building without blinking,” observes Nichols. “But something as delicate and unusual as a bowling center, or a coffeeshop for that matter, required a specialist.”

By 1965 some 12,000 pin palaces had been built nationwide, saturating the market and signaling the decline of these eccentric structures. Space-aged themes were going the way of The Jetsons, and the era of big business was on the rise.

“It’s not a  young married couple building a hamburger stand, it’s a corporation from another state that’s putting millions into a hamburger stand or any kind of roadside building,” Nichols explains about the end of the era, then adds ruefully, “The lightness and the whimsy and the ability to create something totally individual and totally wild just kind of washed out.”