Strikes, Spares & Vision
Eastside Bowl brings creativity, collaboration, and community to Madison
By Randy Fox
Thu 4 Nov 2021 12:30 CST
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Walking through the entrance of Eastside Bowl on Gallatin Pike is a doorway to wowsville. Atomic Age stars, triangles, and swoops surround you like a cloud of buzzing electrons. Groovy hang-out space beckons, whether it’s the classic chrome and vinyl of the diner seating; the sleek, mod barstools of the cocktail lounge; or the comfy lane-side divans. The iconic images of bowling pins are ubiquitous, incorporated into room dividers, emblazoned on wallpaper, and kaiju-sized in the six-footer that welcomes you when you arrive. The funky warm orange, yellow, black, and white design of the carpet provides a walkway to fun, while the reassuring rumble of rolling 12-pounders crashing into 10-pins provides the ambient soundtrack.
The combination bowling alley, diner, music venue, and more is a masterpiece of design. It also delivers fun: providing both traditional bowling and the high-tech variant, HyperBowling (which adds an extra level of challenge while eliminating the bane of the inexperienced bowler — the gutter ball). Also on tap are food, drinks, live music, and best of all, a fun place to hang with friends and family, delivered with a uniquely Nashville flair. That sense of homegrown cool should come as no surprise considering Eastside Bowl is the brainchild of three local musicians/venue owners/really cool dudes — Chark Kinsolving, Jamie Rubin, and Tommy Pierce — whose fingerprints are all over past and present Music City landmarks such as the Mercy Lounge, The Family Wash, The Basement East, and more.
The road to this singular collaboration began almost three years ago when Kinsolving was busy working as a general contractor specializing in bars and venues — his primary focus after selling out his share of the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom/High Watt in 2013. Although Kinsolving thought owning and operating music venues was in his past, his resistance began crumbling when he learned that the old Madison Bowl building — a landmark of Atomic Age design operating from 1960 to 2008 on Gallatin Pike in Madison — was available. “I wanted to do something completely different because I had run a music venue for 12 years,” says Kinsolving. “I also wanted to get out of downtown because I could see where it was going. Moving out here was just a logical choice because my friends and so many local folks had moved from East proper to Inglewood and then from Inglewood to Madison.”
After looking the property over and corralling his ideas for a few weeks, Kinsolving called Jamie Rubin, who had just left his position at the Family Wash — the bar and venue he had founded in 2003.
“Chark’s line to me was, ‘Remember how I told you I’m never getting into the bar business again?’” Rubin recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, dig this ...’”
Kinsolving also approached former musician and real estate investor Tommy Pierce, a financial partner in The Basement East. “I met Chark when he was doing the build-out for The Basement East and he and I hit it off,” says Pierce. “Chark had some brilliant ideas [for the bowling alley] and he came to me because I could help him with securing investors and a loan and negotiating the lease, but also asked me to be a creative partner.”
News of the Madison Bowl project soon leaked and excitement ran high on local social media channels, but by July 2018, what seemed to be a sure-fire strike, turned into a gutter ball. “We spent nine months in there, had a great plan for it, but we didn’t get to see the lease until the end of getting our plan together,” says Kinsolving. “We tried to negotiate, but there wasn’t enough movement in our direction. We made the choice to walk away because it was an unworkable situation. I wandered around a couple of months trying to figure life out and then made a call to the guy that owned the old Kmart building.”
The massive retail complex at the northwest corner of Gallatin Pike and Briley Parkway was home to discount retailer Kmart for over 50 years. Built in 1965, the 102,000 plus square-foot building was purchased by Anchor Investments in 2017, just months before Kmart closed the Madison store permanently as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
“We were hopeful that we could find something that would generate traffic to the shopping center but we didn’t have a specific thing in mind,” Micah Anderson, president of Anchor Investments says. “I met Chark and Jamie and, based on their past records with venues, I knew they would bring something great.”
After putting together a tentative agreement for 32,000 square feet of the building, Chark went to work on the conceptual layout for the space with Rubin and Pierce. As the process progressed, Kinsolving picked up some help from outside players.
“Eric Fritsch is a friend of mine who is a local studio owner who happened to be taking a [Computer-Aided Design] course and needed a class project right when we walked into here [in late 2019],” says Kinsolving. “He and I sat here for six months, just building it in a CAD program. He would print it, and I would go home and study it, walk around in here, and make notes. Then we would move walls around based on my notes. It was a matter of having the time and someone with the skill set to fit the pieces together.”
By February 2020, the lease for the space and the basic plan was locked down. Eastside Bowl would include a large entranceway designed to “wow” patrons from the get-go; a 10,000 square foot bowling alley with 16 lanes; a large adjacent lounge area with both bar and booth seating; “Chark’s Lane Side Diner,” a full-service, traditional diner opening early for breakfast and serving a full menu of diner-fare food into the late-night hours; and an arcade room with classic pinball and video games.
In addition, the back portion of the building would accommodate “The Wash at Eastside Bowl,” a 750 capacity music venue with two curtained stages — one for smaller intimate shows and opening acts and a full-size stage filling one end of the room — along with a balcony area, a private VIP room, a patio area, two backstage green rooms, and an outside entrance and box office for large, ticketed shows.
With plans ready and the lease signed, the partners closed on their loan in early March 2020 and began construction. Just days later, the world effectively shut down with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we hadn’t already closed the loan it may not have even happened,” says Kinsolving. “It worked out OK for us though. We had this giant building and were in a bubble. We only had about six people in here initially, spread out, doing demo, so it was a safe place to work. All through COVID everybody was able to work, keep their distance, and not one person got sick working here, so that’s pretty cool.”
One of the advantages of Kinsolving’s years of experience with building venues was having a loyal and experienced crew of workers and subcontractors. A factor that became increasingly important as the project progressed and moved into highly customized design features.
“I’ve worked with these guys for years,” says Kinsolving. “They’re not afraid to try anything. I’d show them a drawing of something completely bizarre like the ceiling soffits and our guys did an amazing job.”
As the job progressed, the three partners expanded their team to bring focus to the interior design. “We had four environments,” says Rubin. “We wanted to make each place feel different but somehow tied together. Which turned out to be a tall order for design.”
In search of a unifying vision, they turned to Lyon Porter, who Kinsolving had worked for as a general contractor on the Urban Cowboy boutique hotel in East Nashville. Porter, whose eye for postmodern design has produced such local fountains of wow-factor as Urban Cowboy and The Dive Motel, was particularly excited about working on such a large canvas. “They had big goals and they had differing ideas. Everyone does,” says Porter. “I was able to work with them, ask a lot of questions, add a few ideas of my own, and pull the ideas together into a singular design vision.”
Although a large portion of the custom work could be done in-house, Porter brought in design engineer Frank Favia, who’d partnered with him on The Dive Motel. “Lyon is very much a postmodernist visionary, so he works very well paired with somebody like me who figures out how to realize his vision,” says Favia. “The best way to describe what we did is Post-Modern Atomic. It has a 50s-60s kind of vibe, but the postmodernism comes in, in that it’s not like time traveling back to that time, it’s more like a dream of that era.”
That dream doesn’t just include the Atomic Age of the 50s and early 60s. Using that era as a launchpad, Eastside Bowl’s design evokes the sense of American optimism that existed in the 50s and 60s and spilled over into the early 70s — a time when bridging the divides that existed in America still seemed possible and “going to the bowling center, or skating rink or the mall” was something both kids and adults enjoyed. It’s powerful stuff, whether you’re old enough to remember that era, or just fascinated by pop-cultural representations of it like Mad Men or Dazed and Confused.
While aesthetically, Eastside Bowl resuscitates a vision of American’s lost optimism, it also reflects the quirky localism that once existed in suburbia. Look around and you’ll find familiar neighborhood artifacts from the East Side — bits of decor from the original Family Wash location on Greenwood Avenue (2003-2015), the Gothic sign that once heralded the beloved speakeasy/cult movie theater/curio shop Logue’s Black Raven Emporium on Gallatin Pike (2012-2014), and even the familiar neon coffee cup that once lit the window of the original Radio Cafe on Woodland Street (1995-2007).
“The best thing is we haven’t sought that stuff out,” says Rubin. “Robert Logue reached out to Chark and asked him if he would like to have the Black Raven sign. My former partner from Garage Coffee brought us the old Mac truck mirror that hung in the men’s room in the original Family Wash location. Charlie Crawford had the neon coffee cup from the Radio Cafe, which is in the diner. People have come out of the woodwork to say, ‘Hey, would you guys be interested in this?’ They know who we are and that they can trust us with cultural treasures.”
The sense of creativity and collaboration that gave birth to Eastside Bowl as a concept has always been centered around a sense of community. It seems like an almost antiquated idea in 21st century America, but the idea of building a successful business that gives back something to the community is a model all three of Eastside Bowl’s owners are committed to.
“I really hope it’s going to become an iconic landmark,” says Pierce. “It’s built to accommodate the young families that live in the area. It’s built for all ages, and it’s by and for locals.”
Kinsolving agrees with the idea that multi-use means multi-appeal. “I hope we’ll see that here,” he says. “We’ll have families with kids during the day and early evening and then have that changeover where it becomes a really cool late-night hang for adults. My goal has always been to bring back a sense of what I wanted Mercy Lounge to be at first — just a place where friends could come and hang out. It never became what I wanted it to be, but I hope we’ll see that here.”
It's All By Design
While the owners of Eastside Bowl had an overall vision for the interior design, Lyon Porter and Frank Favia proved invaluable in refining the details and making that vision a reality, as Chark Kinsolving acknowledges.
“Initially I had the wall between the bowling alley and the diner area framed for large square windows,” says Kinsolving. “The first thing Lyon said when he walked in here was ‘You should slant them down. It shows movement down the lanes.’ It made sense so we re-framed them, and it inspired the exterior design with the same style [a triangular row of slanting windows].”
Porter brought a specific focus to the project. “I took a lot of inspiration from one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski,” says Porter. “I wanted to have acrylic stars everywhere but that’s not easy to do. There was a lot of custom work — different designs for stars and medallions.”
Faced with several custom design challenges, Porter turned to design engineer Frank Favia for assistance. “Lyon and I first worked together in a contractor relationship on The Dive Motel,” says Favia. “We developed a lot of ideas that went on to drive the aesthetic [of Eastside Bowl]. When Eastside Bowl came to us, they wanted astonishment, and that’s a powerful emotion. The style we brought to the project was maximalist. We thought about every square inch of surface and then we maximized the effect of that surface.”
Favia’s experience with the project made a lasting impression on him. “The professionals that worked on that project are what made me decide to move to Nashville. Chark, Lyon, Jamie, Tommy — that team was really inspiring. I’ve done some really big projects in New York, but the level of passion that they brought to the project is what made it successful. Chark structured it all like a really great recording, with him as the producer, and it turned out to be a really remarkable project.”
Porter echoes Favia’s enthusiasm. “Bowling is such a fun thing to have a romantic nostalgia for,” Porter says. “Different eras had different bowling experiences — like the 80s had a wildly different color palette and design from the 70s, 60s, and 50s. It was fun to play in between all of that and come up with a unique space that is really special and one that I’m honored to be a part of.”