Not so long ago, Chicago had more than a hundred bowling alleys. Now there are fewer than twenty. The most historic of these lost landmarks was Archer-35th Recreation, the home of the annual Petersen Classic.
In 1919 Louis Petersen opened his alleys on the second floor of a commercial building at 2057 W. 35th Street. Two years later he staged a tournament. The Petersen Classic paid $1,000 to the bowler who rolled the highest total for eight games. That was big money for a sporting event in 1921—the same year, first prize in the U.S. Open golf tournament was only $500.
The early Petersen tournaments were dominated by star bowlers, so the number of entries remained small. Petersen wanted to expand. He finally came up with a novel way to attract more bowlers.
His idea was simple. If the winning scores were low, then more people would take a chance and bowl, figuring they might get lucky and take home a big prize. So Petersen did everything he could to keep the scores down.
The technical details don’t concern us here. The important thing was that Petersen’s plan worked.
Now bowlers from around the country began making an annual pilgrimage to Archer-35th. Each year the number of entries grew. The Petersen Classic became a bowling tradition.
Part of the appeal was funky old Archer-35th itself. Louis Petersen died in 1958 and the operation was taken over by his son-in-law, Mark Collor. About the only modernizing Collor did was replacing the pinboys with machines. Everything else looked unchanged from 1921.
You trudged up a dark, narrow flight of stairs from the street and entered a Capone-era saloon. Pass through a gold-painted metal fire door, and now you were in the bowling room. It smelled of old cigar smoke and stale beer. The decor featured large portraits of previous champions, hung from the ceiling over the 16 alleys.
This was the Petersen Classic. By 1980 the annual tournament ran a full nine months and drew 36,000 bowlers. The top prize pushed past $55,000. Even if you finished in 100th place, you still got $1,000. All for an entry fee of $65.
Then competitive bowling went into decline. Entries fell off. By 1993 Collor was ready to retire. When the roof developed a major leak, he closed down the tournament.
Archer-35th Recreation was demolished shortly afterward. In the years since, the new Orange Line has gentrified the old neighborhood. And a much-smaller version of the Petersen Classic is bowled each summer in suburban Hoffman Estates.