“Man-Punishing” Fire at the Brookland Bowling Alley

In the 1930s, after fifty years of development, Brookland had progressed nicely. Streets were paved (mostly), streetcars ran, infrastructure was solid, churches, schools and a variety of businesses were operating. But there weren’t many places designed just for fun. The first was probably the Brookland Billiard Parlor, opened by Frederick Klotz in 1934 at 3522 12th Street NE. It only lasted two years; then the Newton Theater opened in 1937 on the corner of 12th and Newton streets. It replaced the Brookland Baptist Church, which had burned down in 1926.

At the other end of the block, Paul Moore, the proprietor of Brookland Hardware at the corner of 12th and Monroe streets since 1924, had his own recreation ideas. He had jumped on the radio boom in the 1920s at the hardware store, and now was casting his eye on another boom. Bowling had taken off after the Great Depression, but there were no lanes in Brookland. An avid bowler himself, Moore wanted to change that.

Evening Star, September 11, 1938

He and some partners worked with the Home Construction Corporation, who owned land at 10th and Perry Streets, to build a one-story Brookland Recreation Center in 1938. They hired William E. St. Cyr Barrington, a well-known local architect, to design the building with an Art Deco flair. The shopping center next door also had an Art Deco style, which unfortunately was refaced in later years.

Business was good and Moore quickly decided to add a second floor in 1939, also designed by Barrington. With that, the building was complete, with 28 bowling alleys, offices, a luncheonette, and a barber shop. I’ve only been able to find one picture of it from that era, photographed by John P. Wymer (see below). Wymer was an amateur photographer who took it upon himself to photograph as much of the city as he could between 1948 and 1952. The photo is small and doesn’t blow up well, but if you squint you can see the bowling sign atop the front tower, the words “Brookland Recreation Center” below that, and another sign saying “air-cooled” below that. Click to enlarge.

Brookland Recreation Center c. 1950. John P. Wymer collection at the DC History Center.

An important thing to know about the Brookland Recreation Center: It was segregated. Patrons were white only, but African Americans could work there, primarily as pinsetters. Below is a photo from 1943 depicting a pinsetter at a DC bowling alley, which could be the one in Brookland, though the picture is not specific.

April 1943. Washington, D.C. Nitrate negative by Esther Bubley for the Office of War Information. Library of Congress

You might also notice in the photo that it is a duckpin lane, not tenpin. Duckpin bowling, which uses smaller pins and a smaller ball without finger holes, had grown in popularity on the East Coast, though it never overtook tenpin bowling. When I first moved to DC in 1967, there were still a number of duckpin lanes in the city. Today there is only one, a new one at that, the Eleanor on Florida Avenue, with two duckpin lanes.

Within a few years of opening, the name changed to the Brookland Bowling Alleys, and the Recreation Center designation was forgotten. It operated successfully for a little over a decade, until April 19, 1950.

Washington Post April 20, 1950

At 4:45 that morning, bus driver Edward Dunn heard what he called a “soft explosion” that blew out the front windows of the building. He called it in and multiple fire engine and truck companies responded quickly. It soon became one of the worst fires in Brookland’s history. Acrid smoke billowed from the structure. Gas, presumably phosgene gas, emanated from the highly waxed alleys as they burned, eventually causing one third of the firemen to require treatment. Firefighters had to drill holes into the side of the building to increase ventilation.

By 10:15, the offices and barber shop collapsed, sending two firemen to the hospital. Then the ceiling of the first floor sagged badly, nearing collapse. Police kept onlookers at bay as the firefighters continued their work. Some nuns from nearby St. Benedict Academy came looking for a few students who, as they put it, “thought that watching mop-up operations at a big fire was infinitely more fun than attending classes.”

At the end, the interior was gutted, but the exterior walls still stood. Paul Moore estimated damage at $100,000. The cause was thought to be a short circuit or a spark from a cigarette. Years ago I found one picture of the fire but neglected to note the source. Nonetheless, it shows just how thick was the smoke that poured from the building.

Fortunately, the fire was contained before it was able to spread to the buildings next door, which were largely undamaged. But the bowling alleys were gone for good. William Barrington was called in again to oversee the reconstruction of the building in 1951. It reopened in 1952 as the home of the Atlantic Electric and Hardware Corporation, who are still there, now called Atlantic Electric Supply. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.

Though Paul Moore lost the Brookland Bowling Alley, he still operated two others, in Takoma and Fort Davis. He continued as the proprietor of Brookland Hardware until he sold it in 1957.

SOURCES

Wetzel, Hayden, Brookland Bowling Alley, Historic Preservation Review Board application for Historic Landmark, 2008

“New Pin Loop Formed” Evening Star, September 11, 1938

“Bowling Alley Blaze Fells 40 Firemen,” Washington Post, April 20th, 1950

“Paul F. Moore, Sr., Dies; Ex-Bowling Promoter” Evening Star, April 5, 1958

2 thoughts

  1. I shopped at Atlantic many times, never knew this story. Thanks! By the way, there was a duckpin place on Rte. 1 in College Park; I took my kids there a few times. I wonder if that’s still there….?

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  2. Thanks, Bob. Great piece. It’s good to get the background on the owner and the architect. I’ll have to look into what else Barrington did in Brookland, if anything. – John Feeley

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