There aren’t many things creepier than an empty bowling alley. Lights on, floors gleaming, the background hum of the pin-setting machinery — but no humans.
“They’re content to let us die out, if you will,” said Sloan.
The 24-lane alley opened in 1959 in a strip shopping center on New Hampshire Avenue. Sloan bought the business in 2018. Covid was tough — pandemic restrictions forced the center to close temporarily, then to reopen at limited capacity — but the business had rebounded, Sloan said.
And then came Labor Day weekend last year, when the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida blew through the Washington area.
“We had all kinds of water come into the bowling alley,” Sloan said.
Water flooded into the center, which is below ground level. For two weeks there were three inches of standing water under the lanes and the gutters. There was water at the back of the alley, behind the pin-setting machines. Sloan brought in a sump pump to remove the water. Then he reopened the center to casual bowlers, birthday parties and to the league players who are its lifeblood.
Soon, customers began complaining of a damp and musty smell that irritated their noses and lungs and infiltrated their clothes. Testing revealed black mold, Sloan said. Landlord B.F. Saul paid for its own testing, which it said did not find black mold.
A plumber sent by the landlord found a pit hidden at the back of the center, covered by a lid. Sloan said a Saul representative insisted there was once a sump pump there and accused Sloan or the previous owner of removing it, in essence causing the flood.
Sloan said he didn’t even know there was a pit there — and neither, he said, did the previous owner.
“Immediately, B.F. Saul decided to make it their mission to blame me for everything that's happened,” Sloan said.
Concerned about the health of his customers, Sloan closed the bowling alley in November. He doesn’t have flood coverage on his insurance policy.
Sloan said B.F. Saul was helpful early in the pandemic, when business was tough. But now the large real estate company is unresponsive. “I’ve been trying to get building drawings from the landlord,” he said. “They refused to turn those over.”
I called and emailed the B.F. Saul Co. for comment. They declined to speak with me.
Sloan expects that lawyers will have to get involved. Saul has agreed to conduct a third mold test this week, he said. He said the cost of remediating the fungal infestation could be upward of $200,000. The lanes would have to be pulled up, then reinstalled. That would add another $200,000 to the bill, he estimates.
That’s not a cost Sloan can bear on his own. He started a GoFundMe campaign. So far, he is $480,000 short of his $500,000 goal.
In a way, Sloan, 35, owes his very existence to that bowling alley.
“My parents met there,” he said. “I’ve pretty much been bowling all my life. I started when I was about 9 years old.”
Sloan started working at White Oak when he was 15. It was his dream to someday own it. He still drops by the shuttered center regularly, wearing a respirator.
Tenpin bowling may get all the attention, but fans of duckpins — smaller pins, cantaloupe-size ball, three rolls per frame instead of two — insist it’s the more challenging sport.
“We’re all kind of masochists,” said Jeremy Anderson, 45, a Silver Spring software developer and White Oak league bowler. “You can’t take yourself too seriously. That’s the nature of the sport. There’s never been a 300 game. … You can throw the ball the same way and get a different reaction. It’s really a spares game rather than a strikes game.”
And duckpin bowling is as Maryland as skipjacks and Old Bay. Should White Oak Duckpin Lanes fail to reopen, it will mean losing a tiny piece of the state’s heritage.
Until the mold outbreak, Chris Roth was another White Oak regular. His mother went into labor with him there, 46 years ago. He works at WTOP and owns a duckpin center in Baltimore.
About 20 years ago, he said, Maryland duckpin fanatics failed in their effort to replace jousting with duckpin bowling as the state’s official sport.
“I'm pretty sure there are more people in Maryland that are duckpin bowling than there are jousting,” Roth said.
Sadly — for now at least — they’re not doing it at White Oak Duckpin Lanes.