Let It Roll Bowl Keeps Knockin' 'Em Over in Sunnyslope

I've been bowling exactly twice. Both times were when I was a kid, and my prevailing memory of the event is my horror at having to wear rented shoes. But I remember the bowling alley: Sunnyslope's Northgate Bowl on 12th Street, just south of Dunlap. This still-charming, vaguely futuristic building was designed in 1960 and opened in 1962 with 32 lanes and a coffee shop operated by Tom and Tiny Batitsas, who served a heaping plate of biscuits and gravy for 35 cents and packed in crowds for their Friday night fish fry. Northgate, which became Sunset Bowl sometime in the '70s and is now operating as Let It Roll Bowl, looks the same (from the outside, anyway) as it did back when I was throwing gutter balls 40 years ago. Even the wacky light-up sign with its pop-out letters is the same one erected in 1962. (In the late '90s, new owners overhauled the interior, adding state-of-the-art lanes, a computer scoring system, a video arcade, a kiddy daycare, and a pro shop.)

"The best thing about this building is that the current owners have hardly changed a thing," says Alison King, co-founder of Modern Phoenix, an organization devoted to the preservation and appreciation of mid-century architecture in Phoenix. "This is a classic case of 'If it's not broken, don't fix it.' Some of the best, most intact mid-century modern neighborhoods in Phoenix have been benignly neglected, and those are the most likely eligible for historic preservation," because the buildings need little or no exterior renovation to return them to their original look.

I'd long assumed that the building was one among many "undiscovered" Ralph Haver designs — a long, low box of a building wrapped in an oddly angled, cantilevered portico held up by spindly "spider legs." But local Haver expert King, who's included the former Northgate on her upcoming Modern Phoenix Home Tour and Expo, uncovered the building's true origins.

"I thought it was a Haver, too," King admits. "But it turns out it's a Pierson Miller design." Ever the sleuth, King dug around and discovered that Pierson Miller Ware and Associates, a well-regarded architecture firm of the '60s, rented office space in the Haver complex on West Missouri Avenue at the time. "I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Pierson and Miller apprenticed with Haver, and that he gave them clients he didn't have time for back then."

I had a hard time finding a Sunnyslope resident who knew or cared much whether Ralph Haver was involved in the design of their bowling alley, but I barely met anyone there who didn't want to regale me with stories of time spent at Northgate. One of them was Clark Thomas, who sat down at my table the other day while I was enjoying an all-you-can-eat lunch at The Eye Opener, a Sunnyslope hangout of some renown. I was there with my friend Christina Plante, and we were trying to put together a driving tour of Sunnyslope, because we'd just learned that the Modern Phoenix tour is now sold out, and I wanted to create a tour of places one can visit year-round. But we kept getting interrupted, because Sunnyslope is less like a neighborhood than it is like a college campus where all the students are middle-aged and in love with their community. Clark wanted to tell me about how he'd been the original "pinball wizard" ("Just like the Elton John song!") at Northgate, and how he'd learned to rig the pinball machines for winning by propping an ashtray underneath the legs. And someone was throwing a 60th birthday party for Al, the owner of the Eye Opener, in the back of the restaurant, and party guests kept rushing over to our table to offer us baklava and iced tea. I kept trying to steer the conversation back to Sunnyslope.

"Tell people to visit the Sunnyslope Historical Society Museum at 737 East Hatcher," Christina suggested. "Even if you don't care about exhibits of Sunnyslope stuff, you can look at the state's first-ever drive-through window, which is part of the museum. And right next door to it is the Forties House, built by architect Walter Lovinggood, which we're restoring to look exactly as it once did."

Our waitress, who'd brought me seconds of fried halibut, chimed in. "Canalscape is pretty cool," she said. "It's all these plantings and shady places and art and stuff along the canals on Central south of Dunlap."

Canalscape got me to thinking about all the public art in Sunnyslope, particularly at the Transit Center at Third Street and Dunlap and along Dunlap between Seventh Street and Central. Right nearby is Dillon's on Top of Central (245 East Mountain View Road), worth a drive-by if only because the Phoenix Country Club was once housed here (and the barbecue spare ribs aren't bad, either).

My third helping of halibut got me to thinking about Tiny Batitsas and her Friday night fish fry at Northgate Bowl back in the '60s, and so I'll recommend ending your driving tour of Sunnyslope at Tiny's new restaurant, Tiny's Country Café, at 15414 North 19th Avenue, where Tiny will almost certainly sit down at your table to talk about her days at Northgate Bowl. It doesn't get more Sunnyslope than that.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela