Inside the Restorer’s Gold Mine of the Highland Park Bowl

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Before nightlife moguls 1933 Group ever decided to overhaul what is now the freshly opened Highland Park Bowl, Bobby Green spent a few days literally poking around inside the 1927 building.

A partner in the group and the head of their design team, Green spent the time “getting up on ladders and pushing the drop ceiling away and getting a flashlight in there” to try and get an idea of what was hidden behind false walls and decades of things accumulated by previous owners.

A photo of the pre-restored Highland Park Bowl. A photo of the pre-restored Highland Park Bowl.
A photo from partway through the restoration process. The bowling lanes and seating are in this general space now.
Courtesy 1933 Group

“You could tell there was great potential there,” says Green, but he admits he didn’t know exactly what he had to work with at the Highland Park Bowl until he and his team actually started the demolition. Oftentimes, he says, projects like this are “half exploratory and half a leap of faith.”

Mr. T’s, the immediate predecessor to the new Highland Park Bowl, was famously small and dark. The bowling lanes, now the centerpiece of the venue, prominent and glossy, were completely covered up, hidden behind an enormous curtain and under decades worth of miscellaneous stuff. Those drop ceilings hid the space’s original bow truss ceilings and multiple skylights.

A photo of the post-restoration Highland Park Bowl.A photo of the post-restoration Highland Park Bowl.Wonho Frank Lee

Most of the space was being used as storage before the restoration; the building has an upstairs, once doctor’s offices, that performed the same storage function. It seemed that no one who’d operated a business in the structure had ever thrown anything away and, for once, the hoarder mentality of “But someone can use this!” actually panned out.

Wading through all of it, Green found a fair amount of junk (“a dozen bicycles…old clothes, stools”), but also a treasure trove of vintage machines that have now been repurposed in the new boozy bowling alley and, somehow, about 75 cases of liquor from 1972 that have since been incorporated into the decor—that’s not artisanal dust on those old scotch bottles at the bar. (Read more about the cocktail and food offerings at Eater LA.)

Finding all these great old items and original details while cleaning out the space was thrilling, but putting them all to use wasn’t cheap. In fact, in this case, it often cost more money to fix and use the existing old items than to just pop new ones in their place. (The restoration took a year and a half and cost about $2 million, more or less what the group spent redoing the very old and neglected Idle Hour barrel bar in North Hollywood.)

“It would have been so much cheaper to call [bowling equipment manufacturer] Murrey International and have some brand new vinyl bowling lanes and some digital machines—it would have been half the cost. But obviously, it would have erased the soul of the place,” he says. (It’s a route many others have taken.) “That’s always a challenge, talking yourself into why it’s important to spend more to restore the old stuff.”

  • Looking out towards the street entrance from Figueroa from inside the Highland Park Bowl. The glass walls are additional storefronts that will eventually be opened as a live music space and a brewery. All photos by Wonho Frank Lee.
  • Looking down the lanes from the bowling seating area. To the left is more seating, both upstairs and downstairs.
  • One of the two bars. The chandelier is an old pinsetter; bowling pins have been repurposed as lighting fixtures along the bar.
  • The shoe-swap counter. Behind, another pinsetter chandelier hangs over the other bar in the space.
  • A pin’s-eye view of the Highland Park Bowl.
  • The skylights above were hidden for years.

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