After Dark Hall of Fame: Arsenal Bowl
For more than 50 years, the Lawrenceville landmark has been part bowling alley, part nightclub and always ridiculously fun.
photo by sean collier
Nearly a year has passed since I added an inductee to the After Dark Hall of Fame. In the past, I’ve lauded a restaurant chain, a street, an entire subcategory of watering holes and an iconic Lawrenceville bar. And while the Hall of Fame Selection Committee (which consists solely of myself, peering thoughtfully through a nearby window) considered a variety of bars, drinks and intangible concepts (can “a shot and a beer” be an inductee? Should “day drinking” get the nod?), I have made the controversial decision to remain in Lawrenceville for our next honoree.
To many, Lawrenceville is an emblem of the city’s resurgence, a once-struggling neighborhood converted one building at a time into a vibrant hub of commerce and culture. To others, it represents a deviation from the Pittsburgh spirit — and to others still, it speaks more to gentrification than resurgence. Whatever your opinion, though, this is clear: There is plenty to do in Lawrenceville.
Art. Theater. Movies. Shopping. Dining. Drinking. Business. All to say nothing of those who call the neighborhood home. Whatever the path and the politics, Lawrenceville is thriving.
Our latest Hall of Famer, however, is not a newcomer to a neighborhood reborn. Like fellow inductee Nied’s Hotel, it has watched over Butler Street from its working-class roots through the neighborhood’s slow decline and now into its vibrant ascendence. More than a half-century into its lifespan, it remains a destination every night of the week for gathering, drinking, eating and entertainment.
Arsenal Bowl opened in 1960 in the former Weidemier Hall. While bowling alleys in general embody a sort of proto-hipster aesthetic — inexpensive beer and bad shoes will do that — Arsenal’s youth-focused, good-times-for-cheap mindset predated and presaged its neighborhood’s youth movement; long before Row House and Wildcard and Franktuary, twenty- and thirtysomething Pittsburghers were gathering and unwinding at the bowling alley above Butler.
Arsenal’s status as a Lawrenceville landmark was cited in 2007 by no less an authority than the New York Times. Writer Jeff Schlegel called the lanes a place “where old-school bowling vibe meets night club atmosphere” in a piece about Butler Street’s status as a rising design hub. And yes, the list of nightly features at Arsenal reads more like a club’s lineup than that of a bowling alley. Service industry night. College night. “Rock ’n Bowl” on Wednesdays, where several lanes are given over to live bands. A Friday night karaoke combo — all-you-can-bowl from 9 p.m.-midnight with karaoke running just beyond lane 14. And while children are allowed to roll some balls during the day, the lanes are typically reserved for those 21 and over during prime time.
The alley’s labyrinthine layout adds to its charm as well. After ascending a perilous-after-a-few-rounds staircase, guests emerge in the middle of the action; pins scatter and bowlers cackle the moment you enter. If you’re assigned a lane in this room on your first visit, you may wonder where the bar is; to reach it, you’ll have to hike past the far left lane as the balls of the easternmost bowlers glide past your feet. And when you leave the room … you’ll encounter new lanes you didn’t know about. Special lanes. Clandestine lanes. Only after sneaking past dozens of grinning competitors will you finally reach a bar stocked with good beer, cheap beer and a respectable liquor selection.
Throughout the establishment, there are corners where guests can retire for conversation and another round or two. But most just keep bowling, regardless of skill, competitive drive or muscular fatigue. Mostly, you’re drinking and laughing and talking (and maybe singing). But every few minutes, someone reminds you to grab a ball and hurl it across a wooden floor that has hosted Pittsburghers since the Eisenhower administration.
It’s a fine way to spend an evening. You know it, your parents knew it, your grandparents knew it. And they all did it here, in Lawrenceville, when Lawrenceville was Lawrenceville. And before it became Lawrenceville again.
Welcome to the After Dark Hall of Fame, Arsenal Bowl. You set ’em up, and we’ll knock ’em down.