If you read “Rules for the Perfect Friday”, then you already know my friend Diane was to have a two-part birthday. So, about a month ago, her husband Eric sends each of us an evite to celebrate her birthday at the White House’s Truman Bowling Alley. Seriously, you can’t get much cooler than that.
Before I can go into my experience there, it’s important to understand the history of this place – something you history buffs will love. According to the article from the History Channel, “President Harry S. Truman officially opens the first White House bowling alley on April 25, in 1947. The two-lane bowling alley, situated in the West Wing, had been constructed earlier that year.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, a group of Truman’s fellow Missourians funded the construction of the bowling alley in honor of the president. They had intended to open the alley as part of Truman’s 63rd birthday celebration on May 8, but construction was completed ahead of schedule. Truman’s favorite pastime was poker and although he had not bowled since he was a teenager, he gamely hoisted the first ball, knocking down 7 out of 10 pins. One of the pins is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Truman did not use the alley much himself, but supported a group of White House employees in forming a White House Bowling League in 1950. Teams included Secret Service agents, household staff, secretaries, switchboard operators and groundskeepers. The teams competed in tournaments across the country; many opponents were surprised to discover that the players were from the “real White House.”
Eisenhower closed the alley in 1955 and turned it into a mimeograph room. Later, another alley was opened next door in the Old Executive Office Building (now the Eisenhower Building), which President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird used frequently. Nixon used that second bowling alley until he had an additional one-lane alley installed underground directly beneath the North Portico entrance of the White House.”
As it turns out, the bowling alley we were to play in, is the one in the basement of the Eisenhower Building. Now, on a Sunday, there is virtually no one around. So, in post-Halloween spirit, Eric gave us a small bit of haunted history of the building. Although there were many accidental and natural deaths in the halls of this building, the most mysterious story is about the 18th century curio cabinets that only the curator of the Smithsonian has the key to. Apparently, when the curator would check the artifacts on the glass shelves each morning, they were moved around from the night before. So, in walking the halls of the building, you can’t help but wonder how many lost souls, roam the halls.
Eric us led us down a spiral of steps, into the very depths of the basement of the building. So many wires and pipes line the ceilings that you kind of have to hunch over, while making your way to the alley. It’s also dark and dank with lots of underground secret rooms under lock and key – something you can envision out of an action or horror flick. When we arrived at our destination, we entered a small receiving room with wet bar area and shoe-changing area and past that, it opens into a very elongated bowling alley. The decor of the place is very mod, consisting of pictures of past presidents bowling there, including Nixon, Truman and Bush; as well as the original bowling scoring tables and original red, yellow and orange seating chairs and benches. Racks of old bowling balls also line the walls. (Video footage can be accessed here - although it’s sideways so I apologize.)
Each member of the birthday party made some practice bowls before our “tournament” began – guys vs. girls. For the next hour that followed, each person in the party got progressively better, with the men looking strikingly similar to pro-bowlers by the end of our time there. I bowled a 74… something I can’t say I’m proud of. But, what I can say I did was granny bowl down the presidential lanes
At the end of our two hours, when the tournament was over (guys won by a large margin), we walked down to the end of the bowling alley for one final picture before heading out. On the way back up, Eric gave us a bit of a verbal tour of the building. There are eight monumental curving staircases of granite, with over 4,000 individually cast bronze balusters. These staircases are capped by four skylight domes and two stained glass rotundas, one of which you see here to the left. There is also history behind the doorknobs… each one was custom-made to reflect the State, War and Navy departments – what originally occupied this building.
It was truly a magnificent building and a fabulous day. As we walked outside, we directly faced the West Wing and couldn’t help but take one final picture – one that my boots from post #2 made – before heading home.