Walking along the east side of Central Avenue, more astute observers have long noticed the unusual glass block tiles amid the sidewalk, peeking through at those above.
For most, it was merely an interesting aesthetic touch, something to admire in passing, thinking it solely a little bit of flair provided by the City of Phoenix on the usually-mundane sidewalk. But for those in the know, it was something representing memory—a memory of our city’s vibrant past.
Just below the path, in a closed-off basement the Gold Spot Bowling Alley’s long-forgotten shell sat, awaiting its fate as the city rapidly evolved above it.
In 1927, the Nielsen Radio and Sporting Goods Company arrived at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Pierce Street, offering the latest luxurious radio receivers alongside more affordable sporting goods. Simultaneously, the structure held one of the Valley’s very first radio stations, first known as KFCB (“Kind Friends Come Back”), and later KOY.
In those days, radio shops served as more than just locales for purchase. Due to the massive expense involved in owning a radio at the time, these stores were equally important for community gatherings, as shop owners hosted events around important radio broadcasts.
Though the radio station vacated the premises in 1937, the location continued to have a social presence, becoming home to the site of much downtown lore: the Gold Spot Bowling Alley.
From 1939 to 1950, the Gold Spot played host to everything from late-night revelry to church gatherings. One article even notes the beginning of a 50-year marriage taking place at a church outing for teens at the alley during the 1940s.
The alley itself was accessible along Pierce Street, and was serviced by a team of pinboys who set up the pins and returned bowling balls to patrons prior to the invention of pinsetting machines in the late 1940s.
According to many, the basement alley contained a secret passageway, connecting it to another underground speakeasy (reportedly used by cops and mobsters alike) underneath the Westward Ho hotel across the street.
In 2003, city officials explored the bowels of the Ho in preparation for construction of the light rail. The trek reportedly unearthed only a series of extremely narrow hallways going north and south along Central, thought to be used for cooling the hotel, with nothing connecting the hotel to the Gold Spot. However, the rumors of a pathway remained.
Through the decades following the Gold Spot’s closing, the building was occupied by various auto repair shops and dealerships.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, the basement was rumored to have held a series of underground parties tied to such figures as Kim Moody and DJ Ariel, inhabiting the same arts scene as CRASHarts, Gallery X, Alwun House, Metropophobobia and the Faux Café.
In 1991, the Nielsen Radio building was torn down, and has since remained a parking lot, known to ASU students and visitors as the appealing “$5 lot” (now $6!).
From that point on, the only sign of the area’s former life was the remaining vault lights in the sidewalk. Once a common fixture of city streets, providing natural light to the space below, the Gold Spot lights are now the only known lights of their kind in Phoenix.
The City and its denizens left the former destination to languish in a struggling downtown as it faded into the memories of elderly residents.
In 2011, when the City of Phoenix received a streetscape improvement grant, an historic survey was conducted, revealing once again the Gold Spot’s presence.
Although parts of the basement were filled in to maintain the above road’s structural integrity, a select few people were able to explore the bowels of the alley, taking note of the decaying pin mural and a sign declaring “Please Stay Back of Foul Line”, the only pieces remaining of its former life.
Around the same time, the Phoenix New Times was doing work on its annual “Best of Phoenix” issue, this time theming it around Phoenix’s “underground”.
Understandably, the alt-weekly immediately gravitated to the Gold Spot’s history, leading writer Claire Lawton and photographer Dayvid Lemmon to venture to a hole in the vault lights, sinking a camera underground and taking a brief video of the alley’s remnants.
After rediscovering the building, the City partnered with local architecture and preservation firm Motley Design Group to restore the vault lights and create an interpretive plaque to share this quirky piece of Phoenix’s history.
For the project, Motley removed the mostly-shattered glass blocks, cast them, and created a new set of vault lights to pair with the few blocks that remained undamaged. To indicate the former glow of the basement, LED lights were installed below the glass to be lit at night, beckoning passersby forward.
This past Friday, Robert Graham of Motley and City employees welcomed the public to the new display’s unveiling, sharing a brief history of the property and the combined groups who made this latest tribute possible.
Though still properly unused, the Gold Spot now has a permanent place in downtown Phoenix’s collective history, standing alongside a block-sized parking lot to help residents and visitors understand what once stood.