Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration

I saw the sign, and it opened up my mind.
I saw the sign.

The US Gypsum Company Bowling Team
@ Hafner's Bowl in 1956
(they're mostly dead now)

The Hillcrest Bowling Center was born in the heyday of bowling in 1956, when an enterprising young man named Don Hafner borrowed some money, quit his part-time job bagging groceries at Hove's Supermarket, and built a basement bowling alley that he called the Hillcrest Bowl.

Not long thereafter, the youthful entrepreneur bought out the retail space above the lanes, and converted the whole place into a restaurant and liquor lounge with a bowling alley in the basement. At some unknown point a second bowling alley was built on the upper level.

The resulting establishment was known as "Hafner's," and it lasted for a long time, until Don sold it. It was renamed the "Hillcrest Bowling Center" in the early 90's, and changed hands a couple of times as owners less savvy than Don Hafner had been messed it all up and lost their shirts.

Which brings us up to the modern era. In late 2002, Hafner's Hillcrest Bowl closed to the public forever. The power to the pin machines, the lane lights, and the sign out front was shut down for good. The nondescript-looking, memory-haunted building crouched vacant and lonely, silently begging for some final love, some attention, some affection … for one last kiss before dying.

And that, of course, is Action Squad's job.

January of 2003

Scouting : Max Action, Tourette's
Exploration : Max Action, Agent Wop, MuppySkum

It was the third afternoon of Action Squad's "Saint Paul Vacancy Tour." I'd obtained a list of the abandoned buildings that were registered with the city of Saint Paul, entered into a spreadsheet, and sorted it so that we could best concentrate our efforts on commercial structures, rather than abandoned houses.

The only info we had were addresses; no names, or indications of size or purpose. Day one had focused on the buildings that had been abandoned the longest. That solo trip had been cut short when my car started overheating and I locked my keys in my car while parked in downtown Saint Paul looking under the hood.

Day two, Foxilla and I had checked out the remains of the previous day's list, plus some more recently-vacated structures.

On this day, day three, Tourettes and I were hitting the final listing of buildings that I thought might be of interest.

At first, I almost blew off the place: it was a drab building, and it seemed unlikely that we'd find a way in. By this point, I was a bit fatigued from driving all over the city just to look at what were mostly totally crappy places that would not even have been all that interesting to get into when I was 13 years old.

I was about to drive off without even doing the obligatory "hop out and walk all the way around looking for access points" (with clipboard and pen in hand to look vaguely official), when Tourettes pointed out the sign out front. Hmmm, the place had been a bowling alley. This piqued my interest … I've always wondered what the machines look like that set up the pins and return the bowling balls.

So, we parked the car and started walking the perimeter, scanning for open doors, climbing routes to the roof, unlocked windows, etc. Nada. There was very little reason to be hopeful as we rounded the corner to check out the final side of the building, which featured only a set of metal doors.

However, just as has happened so many times before, the most obvious route was the one left accessible; when I yanked on the door, it pulled open grudgingly. Someone had done a half-assed job of securing the door, by twisting some wire around the inside handle and then twisting the other end around a pipe in the ceiling several feet away. It wouldn't have kept an 8 year-old child out, and it didn't keep us out, either.

I suddenly became aware that I was standing in broad daylight in full view of the busy street with the open door in my hand. Before anyone could notice, we quickly slammed the door shut again and nonchalantly strolled back to the car. Tourettes was kicking herself for having made other plans for the evening, and I was already excitedly planning to return that night, under the cover of darkness.



MuppySkum, Agent Wop and I parked the car near the bowling alley around 9 PM and walked toward the Hillcrest. As quickly as possible, we popped the door open and slipped inside. When we turned our lights on, we were greeted by a rather disappointing sight: the interior space had been totally gutted. Exposed wiring, concrete, and plumbing were the only things we could see in the dusty, grey space around us.

Being Action Squad, of course, we quickly adjusted our expectations downward and merrily started seeing what this new forbidden zone had to offer. The discovery of a couple of heavy safes, given the scant promise of such an empty place, was cause for excitement and photographs.

A door led through into a water-damaged hallway, which went to the right and left. Right went to a locked glass exterior door, which we were cautious not to shine our flashlights around for fear of attracting unwanted attention. I led the way to the left, and was the first through the door at the end, which had an asbestos warning poster taped to it.

I opened the door, fully expecting more gutted, grey, open spaces … but instead laid eyes on a beautiful sight. The bowling alley was intact! A long corridor with rows of lockers led off to the left, toward the bowling area. The lanes were straight ahead over a low dividing wall, from left to right. To the right, a door marked "Employees Only" drew me like a bug to a zapper, because I immediately knew it had to lead into the mystery-shrouded pin-setting machine room.

The door opened easily, if creakily. We tried to keep our voices down as we filed in, but it was tricky. There were so damn many things to see and excitedly point out to the others … from the machines themselves, each as big as a compact car, to the various objects that had been left behind. It appeared that the owners had not taken anything with them when they shuttered the place: there were tools, signs, bowling balls, pins, and more every place we looked. The mood was one of frantic and childlike joy, as we all scattered throughout the long, narrow back room to see as many new things as possible.

Eventually we exited the back room by crawling out through the pin machines and into the bowling lanes, which was pretty dang neat. The rest of the level proved just as interesting: a bar, lounge, shoe rental station, kitchen, and more … all dust-choked and ghostly, yet still almost fully stocked, as though the alley was just forgotten one night after a normal nightly closing.

The windows were not boarded, so we were paranoid about someone noticing our flashlights. The mood got a bit tense when we thought we heard noises from the front of the building … was someone coming in after us? We all stood frozen, ears straining, lights turned off.

Someone whispered "I swear I hear someone at the front door," and I quickly led the three of us, tiptoeing through the inky blackness, toward the back-up plan route I'd mentally book-marked earlier (I always try to have a "flight plan" in mind in case we're discovered). It wasn't quite an escape, but it would be a good hiding place that also allowed us to see what the heck was really going on outside.

Earlier, I'd noticed that a large storage and janitor's closet featured a ladder leading up to a trapdoor, which was wide open. So we crept out, trying to be quiet on the gravel. We couldn't hear any cause for alarm, so I carefully walked over to each of the roof's edges in turn, peeking over and half expecting to see a squad car. But there wasn't anybody there; either our ears were fucking with us, or it had just been the sounds of a building settling.

So it was back to exploring. Instead of making us more cautious, the false alarm scare seemed to have the opposite effect. Re-emboldened for no good reason, we relaxed a bit and even did a bit of bowling, and we all had a small token drink from the bar (which was still semi-stocked, with all the nastiest, cheapest booze still there).

There was so much shit to see, it was overwhelming. A hulking big screen TV. A small stage, complete with PAs. A sound equipment room. Rows of bowling trophies. Storage closets full of bowling balls. Hundreds of lockers, many still with belongings in them. Scores of old-style leather bowling shoes. Piles of Hafner's drink tokens. Basically, almost everything you'd find in an active bar/bowling alley combo. Wow.

Eventually, our desire to try to see everything on the main floor was overshadowed by our desire to find out what was down the stairs we'd seen when we first got into the bowling alley area. So we descended.

And found out that our fun was just getting started … there was another full bowling alley down there, another pin machine room (this one was flooded), and another bar!

We had a blast checking out the whole basement, but kept thinking we heard noises from upstairs, which put us on edge.

I started to get that feeling … the one that tells me, "hey, so far, so good ... but quit pushing your luck, and get outta here."

So as soon as we'd seen everything, we headed back upstairs, killed our lights, and slipped away into the night undetected, with the huge, triumphant grins on our faces that only a successful night of Action Squadding can provoke.


The next time I saw Hafner's Hillcrest Bowling Center, it wasn't there. When I returned in the spring to take a few more exterior photos, there, where my memory insisted that the building should be, was nothing but a flat, empty gravel lot.

Don Hafner died in 1999. The bowling alley that he'd breathed life into joined him in 2003.

Now, as insubstantial as any ghost, it lives on only in the memories of those who bowled there ... and in ours.






PPS: Guestbook Entry 12/26/10

Name: Steve Klund | Location: Havelock, NC | Comments:

I just saw the article regarding Hillcrest bowling Centre / "Hafner's". MY first job was a busboy there in 1967 and left there upon enlistment into the Marines in 1971. I have very fond memories. Don was a demanding but fair employer. He expected each employee to give their best and would let you know when you were not. He and his brother Al taught me many lessons regarding life, leadership, and business ethics. I spent many hours learning how to bowl and participating in leagues there. When my wife and I married, we had our wedding dinner / reception there (she worked as a waitress in the Rumpus Room for 3 years prior to us getting married). I remember Don "escorting" more than one teen off premise when attempting to get cigarettes from a vending machine. I also remember the Head Chef "Mac" discussing(?) (with meat cleaver in hand) with a customer why he should not have asked for katsup to put on a filet mignon. The heat of the rumpus room kitchen in the dead of winter matched a day in death valley, standing outside in -20 degree to cool off. I have many memories of Hafner's / Hillcrest Bowling Alley. Thank you for your article!



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