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Baltimore City

Patterson Bowling Center, the oldest continuously operating duckpin alley in the country, might be saved

Until Saturday morning, Patterson Bowling Center mechanic Regina Drayton had a plan.

The 47-year-old Navy veteran would attract new bowlers to the Canton duckpin alley. She would maintain the decades-old pinsetting machines she named after Al Capone and other famous gangsters. She would secure historic recognition for the 95-year-old business, believed to be the country’s oldest continuously operating duckpin alley.

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And one day, owner Ken Staub would pass the duckpin business he acquired in 2016 on to her.

Instead, Drayton learned Saturday that the Eastern Avenue building was being sold to new owners who plan to turn it into 15 apartments and a commercial space, adding a third floor, according to a city permit application.

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Then Tuesday morning, Staub told her the developer was working on a plan that might allow the duckpin alley to stay, potentially shrinking it from 12 lanes on two floors to six on a single floor.

“It’s been such an emotional roller coaster,” Drayton said. “Even if it’s to appease the community, the developer is going to let us keep a part of our heart.”

Albert Kim of Baltimore, left, gets tips on how to hold the ball from Patterson Bowling Center manager Regina Drayton, who was known to her customers as Miss Regina.

Staub, 70, said he repeatedly expressed interest in buying the building but couldn’t scrape together the asking price, more than $700,000. He was optimistic about business this year, after a rebound in revenue from Drayton’s efforts and a new marketing company he had hired.

“The developer had reached out to me to see what could be done about keeping the bowling center there and keeping the apartments there,” Staub said. “Regina and I are praying it all works out.”

In an email, Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen called the bowling alley a “beloved, historic community asset.”

“We would like to see them stay in Southeast Baltimore and are exploring options to find out if that is possible,” Cohen said.

An unpretentious community fixture where bowlers of all ages came to play a traditional Baltimore game, Patterson Bowling Center opened in 1927.

“I loved what it stood for, and I love what it brought to that neighborhood,” Drayton said. “It stood for everything Baltimore.”

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According to state land records, the building has been owned by Patterson Park Lanes LLC since 2016, the same year Staub took over the business. The LLC’s registered agent, Towson attorney Hunter Piel, wouldn’t identify the owner and declined to comment further.

The bowling alley property was listed for sale by Avenue Real Estate LLC.

“We are not the owner of the property,” said Ross Conn, Avenue’s broker. “We represent the owner of the property.”

He declined to disclose the owner’s identity.

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The application for the permit to convert the building into apartments was submitted by Kristian Spannhake, a project director for Brightview Senior Living, and Michael Castagnola, a software executive turned real estate investor. Neither Spannhake nor Castagnola responded to requests for comment, but a 2105 Eastern Avenue Realty LLC — the duckpin alley’s address — is registered to the address of Spannhake’s Butchers Hill home.

Duckpin bowling began around the start of the 20th century, but its geographic origins are muddy. Popular legend in Baltimore says that 1890s Orioles John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson invented duckpins at their alley, The Diamond.

“The funny little pins looked like bunches of plovers on a marsh,” a Sun article reported in December 1899, when the duckpins made their first appearance at the Howard Street alley. The pins are shorter and squatter than tenpin bowling, making it harder to get a strike.

The National Duckpin Bowling Congress recognizes 75 duckpin houses nationwide that are still operating, including 23 in Maryland. Executive Director Laura Bowden said she believed Patterson to be the oldest one remaining.

“Every time you see a center close, you think you’re going to get that much closer to the industry dying,” said Sue Herron, who runs 75-year-old Walkersville Center, Frederick County’s last duckpin alley.

A ball makes contact with numerous duckpins at Patterson Bowling Center. Duckpins uses a smaller ball than ten-pins, and the squat pins are more difficult to knock down.

The sport’s heyday was more than half a century ago: In the 1960s, there were more than 1,000 duckpin alleys nationwide, according to a 1993 Sun article.

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When bowler Charles McElhose took over Patterson in 1995, he planned to renovate the aging alley and attract some of the young, affluent professionals who recently had moved to Fells Point and surrounding neighborhoods.

“There was a time when you couldn’t move through Baltimore without finding a neighborhood duckpin center every few blocks. Now many of them are gone,” he told a Sun reporter in 1995. “I don’t want to see Patterson leave too.”

More recently, the bowling alley appeared stuck in time, with an old-school candy machine and paper scorecards.

On a Sunday in November, the bright blue walls reflected afternoon sunlight as music played above the thundering of balls and falling pins. Three generations of a family celebrated a birthday, while a group of 20-somethings split pizzas and bring-your-own hard seltzers.

The Unman Foundation recently rented all the lanes on the first floor of the two-story Patterson Bowling Center for a company party.

“You don’t get character like this,” said Matt Anton, who had come all the way from Silver Spring with his family to bowl at Patterson for the first time. “You can’t help but be happy in a place like this.”

“Ms. Regina,” as kids and adults alike referred to the bubbly blonde manager, sprinted around the alley, alternating between fixing stalled machines and chatting with customers. When she took trips to Ocean City, she would bring back popcorn for her regulars, who sent her Christmas cards.

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To newcomers addressed as “Sweetheart” or “Honey,” Drayton demonstrated how to properly bowl the small duckpin balls, which can fit easily in an adult’s hand.

“I’m a great mechanic, not a great bowler,” she said with a laugh after releasing a ball that missed the squat pins.

With the sheer force of her personality and a gift for machines, the Baltimore-born former Navy machinist had revitalized a business that suffered during the early coronavirus pandemic, Staub said. She said working at the alley gave her a sense of purpose again after she recovered from cancer.

“I probably slept on lanes seven and eight more times than you know, but I always woke up happy because it was so gratifying,” Drayton said Sunday. “How many people can say, ‘I make hundreds of people a day smile?’”

Longtime bowlers said before Drayton’s arrival, lanes were practically unusable because the decrepit machines would break down so often. Initially, she was hired to work behind the counter, but she soon became interested in repairing the complex machinery that sets the duckpins and tosses balls back to bowlers.

Regina Drayton, the manager at the Patterson Bowling Center, was also the mechanic. Here, she oils the machine parts of the old Brunswick duckpin pinsetters, which required constant attention.

Until 1955, Patterson hired “pin boys” to set up its bowling pins. The automatic pinsetting machines Drayton taught herself to fix are challenging to repair because they haven’t been produced since the 1970s, after inventor Ken Sherman refused to sell his patent, said Chris Roth, president of the Duckpin Bowling Proprietors of America.

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Owners of duckpin bowling alleys regularly descend on closed-down centers like vultures, seeking replacement parts for their own machines. Staub said Sunday that he already had received multiple offers to buy his leftover machinery.

Bowden hoped that if Patterson closes, its machines would allow a new center to open somewhere like Tennessee, where a man had recently approached her about opening an alley.

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“It’s a shame, and I wish there was somebody who was willing to step in and actually take it in hand and purchase it rather than pull it apart into pieces,” Bowden said.

Every Tuesday, a casual league founded by bartender Josh Lehnert and his friend Kevin Smith took over Patterson, hosting theme nights and holiday parties. The league held an annual tournament in honor of their friend John Hill, who died in 2018.

This year’s competition would have required bowlers to use their non-dominant hands to compete for Hill’s favorite food, a jar of pickles.

“He was a terrible bowler,” Lehnert said.

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Lehnert said the league kept people together and the alley gave them a place to gather in the cold months. Having hosted national champion Elizabeth “Toots” Barger and other famous bowlers, it was worlds away from the sterility of the huge chain bowling centers in the suburbs.

“It’s one of a kind,” Lehnert said. “You don’t really see many places like that.”

Patterson Bowling Center, a duckpins house which opened in 1927, closed suddenly last weekend. The manager and mechanic, Regina Drayton, would like to see the Fells Point bowling alley survive, despite plans by the building’s owner to convert the building into apartments.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and reporter Lilly Price contributed to this article.

For the record

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect figure for the price Ken Staub paid to buy the Patterson Bowling Center in 2016. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Kristian Spannhake's profession. He is a project director. The Sun regrets the error.


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