Kirkland’s Tech City Bowl – aka Totem Bowl – closing after 64 years

Apr 13, 2022, 6:15 AM | Updated: 8:36 am

Tech City Bowl on Rose Hill in Kirkland will shut down permanently on October 2, 2022; it opened as Totem Bowl in the late 1950s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Totem Bowl, now Tech City Bowl, as it appeared in the early 1960s. (Courtesy Don Wells) Don Wells and his sister Michele Danner are board members and fourth-generation bowling alley owners; their grandparents Jim and Freda Gaines built Totem Bowl in the 1950s, and Freda's parents operated a bowling alley in Washington as early as the 1920s. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The renaming of Totem Bowl to Tech City Bowl 25 years ago reflected the growth of Microsoft and other companies on the Eastside of Lake Washington. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

After more than six decades in business on the Eastside, Tech City Bowl on Rose Hill will shut down permanently later this year. The family that’s owned and operated the business since the 1950s is in the process of selling the property to a developer. Final pins will fall on Sunday, Oct. 2.

Tech City Bowl opened in the late 1950s roughly midway between Kirkland and Redmond on Northeast 70th Street, which is also known as the Old Redmond Road, in what was then unincorporated King County. The area is part of Kirkland now, and is best known these days as the Bridle Trails neighborhood, for the nearby state park.

For the first 40 years or so, the business was known as Totem Bowl, and the exterior and interior were decorated with mid-century Native American caricatures, and the lounge was named after “Kaw-Liga” the cigar store fixture in the old song popularized by Hank Williams.

But the original name and all that now likely to be considered politically-incorrect décor went away 25 years ago in a brilliant update and rebranding to reflect the presence of Microsoft and other tech companies on the Eastside. But times and the bowling business have continued to change, and the real estate – 3.2 acres of prime commercial land in the middle of fast-growing community – is now more valuable than the 32 lanes of Tech City Bowl.

Totem Bowl was built in 1958 by a couple named Jim and Freda Gaines. Jim passed away in the 1990s and then Freda and one of their daughters ran the business. About 15 years ago, the next generation took over.

Michele Danner, the secretary of the board, and her brother Don Wells, the president and managing partner of the corporation, are in their 50s. They are sister and brother, and are the children of Michael Wells; Michael’s dad Jim Gaines was their grandfather.

“The eventuality, unfortunately, is that our last weekend will be the 2nd of October,” Wells told KIRO Newsradio. “We’re going to operate and continue to take care of our customers in the neighborhood, and just have a really, really good six months of fun and memories and enjoy the place.”

Wells and Danner and a number of other cousins comprise the board of the family business, and each says it was a tough decision to shut down a place that meant a lot to their grandparents, and which also evokes strong memories of their late father. Michael Wells died at age 39 in 1980.

The family has been considering redevelopment of the property for many years, and recently worked with the City of Kirkland to change the zoning. Earlier plans may have included building a new bowling alley at the site, along with residential and retail spaces, but the Don Wells says the pandemic was costly, and took its toll on the family’s appetite to develop the property themselves.

“Hopefully, we’re going to find a buyer for the equipment that will be able to move it to a center nearby or create a new center out of it,” Wells said. “And so once that all happens then, unfortunately, this place will be gone and there will be new retail and housing here. But we’ll see what it becomes.”

Though Don Wells and the other family members are in the process of selling the property to a developer for an undisclosed amount, Tech City Bowl will remain open until Sunday, Oct. 2.

The original Totem Bowl opened with 16 lanes in 1958. Before that, Jim and Freda Gaines ran the old bowling alley in downtown Kirkland. Before that, Freda’s parents immigrated from Germany and settled in Central Washington.

“[In] Grand Coulee, they opened the Grand View Hotel,” Wells said. “They had two lanes of bowling and a German club with a secret door to get through to that so they can serve beer during Prohibition.”

Later, Wells says, Freda’s family sold the hotel in Grand Coulee and came west of the mountains, where they ran bowling alleys in Snohomish and Everett.

“So we’re talking about almost 100 years of family history involved with the game of bowling,” Wells said.

They’ve already told Tech City Bowl employees – roughly 40 to 50 people, not all full-time – who will lose their jobs come October. Customers will learn of the upcoming closure as the news spreads this week.

Don Wells and his sister Michele Danner and their siblings and cousins grew up at Totem Bowl around their grandparents Jim and Freda. As infants, they were placed in the basement daycare back in the 1970s when moms would take part in weekday bowling leagues. As adolescents and young adults, they would be put to do work doing things like scraping gum off the undersides of chairs and tables.

And while it sounds like Jim and Freda Gaines lived and breathed the bowling alley while they were alive and running the place, those feelings are different for the generation currently in charge, and the fourth generation of siblings and cousins means there are more people involved in decision making.

Don Wells says they had a great manager for years who ran Tech City Bowl. He and his siblings and cousins had other careers, and what he says is a different kind of passion for the place than their grandparents – to keep it running, but not have to be there every day.

“We made an expectation realistic in that, nobody had to be here 24/7, and that we could do this because we all had our own jobs,” Wells said. “We all had different careers, just the different things that we did that we built our own lives around, because it was our grandparents who built this, and we’re going to make sure it’s there.”

“But none of us expected that that’s going to be us” taking on that daily role, Wells said. “And none of us did.”

Wells and Danner say they’ll likely be offering nostalgic promotions in the months ahead, including 1958 prices and even bringing back the once-popular Totem Burger.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Kirkland’s Tech City Bowl – aka Totem Bowl – closing after 64 years