By Tom Richmond
The 1894 Recreation Pavilion at Lyndhurst houses the two oldest regulation-sized bowling lanes in the world. Helen Gould, daughter of railroad magnate and former Lyndhurst owner Jay Gould, commissioned what we now refer to as the Bowling Alley two years after her father’s death. Built in shingle style and balloon framed, with miles and miles of shellacked Douglas fir beadboard on the interior, the structure had indoor plumbing, but no electricity (until the 1940s). Juxtaposed with the 1838 Gothic Revival Lyndhurst mansion by A. J. Davis, the Bowling Alley was considered modern architecture in its time. The space was meant for casual recreation, bowling then being one of the only sports that men and women participated in together.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation took over the estate in 1961; by then the Bowling Alley had seen little use for decades. Attempts at stabilizing the roof failed, and water damage and rot set in. The rear gallery and stairs collapsed, and so the building had to be surrounded by fencing and barbed wire to prevent unauthorized entry. Through the 1980s, multiple proposals for its adaptive reuse as a restaurant or music venue, as well as some for its demolition, came and went due to lack of funding. In the early 1990s, funding was found to restore the structure and reconstruct its collapsed sections. Under the skilled guidance of Lyndhurst director Suzanne Pandich and restoration project manager David Overholt, the Bowling Alley once again took shape.
Skilled tradespeople and interns spent thousands of hours installing reproduction timbers, laying up a new roof, installing lead-coated copper guttering, rebuilding brick chimneys, and fitting tens of thousands of cedar shakes to the exterior. They roughed in new wiring to bring the structure up to modern standards; restored doors, windows, and finishes—both in house and with the assistance of the North Bennet Street School in Boston; and, with a grant from major bowling supplies company Brunswick, rebuilt the lanes themselves, reusing as much of the original fabric as possible.
When funding ran out in 1999, the project stopped, key personnel moved on, and the Bowling Alley was closed and fenced off again. Work did not restart until 2009, when Krystyn Hastings-Silver, who is now Lyndhurst’s assistant director, partnered with the County of Westchester to restore two restrooms on the north end of the building for public use as part of the Riverwalk project. The fencing and scaffolding that had been covering the building were removed, its floors and finishes were further restored, and the plumbing was made operational for the first time in more than six decades. Opening this section of the building was a significant catalyst of fundraising for the rest of the Bowling Alley in subsequent years.
In 2014 Lyndhurt’s executive director Howard Zar obtained funding from National Trust Trustee Kenneth Woodcock, New York state’s Environmental Protection Fund, and the Thursday Club to complete the restoration of Bowling Alley’s interior. As restoration project manager, I brought in historic preservation interns from Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Roger Williams University, the University of Texas at Austin, and other universities as well as local volunteers during community service weekends. During this time, the roofing repairs made in the mid-1990s reached their 20-year useful life, and we replaced the roof once more. We also took on the replacement of missing, vandalized, and much-worn surfaces, inside and out. We replaced, recreated, or refinished more than 15,000 feet of beadboard and refastened the decking that had been placed on the front veranda in the 1990s with stainless steel fasteners. Finally, we evicted long-term tenants—a family of raccoons—from the attic spaces.
We had largely completed the work by May 2016, and Lyndhurst was able to hold its annual spring fundraiser with much joy and lots of bowling. Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky once said that “to experience art, one must enter into it and mingle with its very being.” To that end, we had always intended to open the Bowling Alley for use, with every surface available to the touch, offering a unique interpretation and experience of this piece of history.
Tours of the Bowling Alley began in June 2017, and visitors can enjoy a pre-arranged tour on weekends from May to September. The building is also available to be rented for very special events, including use of the bowling lanes. To help maintain the Bowling Alley, we do require that bowlers use the lightest possible regulation balls—unlike the 24-pound originals that were made of Lignum vitae and had only two finger holes—and use current regulation pins in order to preserve the original ones; but score is still kept on the original wall-mounted chalkboard. Our interns regularly refinish the lanes by hand with bowling alley paste wax and manually set the pins during events. And a new security system keeps the building safe without the need for any more barbed wire.
On a project that literally spanned six decades, it would be impossible to name all the participants—the staff, contractors, volunteers, and interns, many of whom have gone on to illustrious careers around the country and the globe. Likewise, it would be difficult to name all the donors to this project, past and present. They are nonetheless much appreciated: this building would no longer exist without all of them.
Tom Richmond is the restoration project manager at Lyndhurst. For videos of the Bowling Alley resotration in progress, visit the National Trust's Instagram page @savingplaces.