September 18, 2014

The Holler House in Milwaukee

The Holler House exterior

photo by: Dori, Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee’s Holler House is home to the nation’s oldest certified bowling alley.

Speaking as a Midwestern native, I can tell you firsthand that the farther north you drive out of Chicago, the harder-pressed you’ll be to find a fancy watering hole. Wisconsin bars in particular pride themselves on their sticky floors and loud, bone-rattling jukeboxes; they’re spots to commiserate with friends and neighbors over pitchers of beer and baskets of greasy onion rings fried to perfection. Milwaukee’s Holler House, located in the city’s historically Polish South Side and owned by the Skowronski family since 1908, perfectly embodies the grittiness -- and greatness -- of this uniquely Midwestern variety of tavern.

A few things to know about the Holler House: its basement features the oldest certified bowling alley in the United States, and the pins are still set by human pinsetters, or “pinboys.” ($3 is a good amount to tip them.) The planks in each of the two bowling lanes are made of real wood, instead of the synthetic material more typically used today, and they’re oiled with a spray can. You keep score by hand, and the signatures of generations of bowlers are scrawled all over the alley's cinder block wall. Bowling costs $4 per person, per game.

The Holler House interior bar

photo by: Cragin Spring, Flickr

For about 46 years, female patrons at the Holler House have been taking off their bras and hanging them around the bar.

Upstairs, the first-floor bar area contains hundreds of hanging bras, a tradition that began when owner Marcy Skowronski began drinking with a few female friends one night about 46 years ago. The women all decided to throw their bras onto some skis hanging from the ceiling, and a long-running tradition was born. Now, when a woman comes into the bar for the first time, she's encouraged to leave her bra.

There was a dustup at the Holler House in 2013 when a city inspector deemed the decades of accumulated brassieres to be a fire hazard, and informed Skowronski that she had to take them down. The 87-year-old bartender, who married into the Skowronski family in 1952 and has been running the bar solo since the death of her husband Gene, was forced to comply. But after Skowronski called a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist and her local alderman to tell them what had happened, the city backed down, and the bar held a triumphant “re-hanging of the bras” celebration.

The Holler House bowling trophies

photo by: Cragin Spring, Flickr

Bowling trophies and memorabilia on display at the Holler House.

Aside from the lacy bra décor, you won’t find much that’s fancy at the Holler House -- the bar serves only bottled beer (with the exception of Schlitz cans, in true Wisconsin fashion), and there are frequently no chairs in the basement bowling area. The bowling shoes sit in a tangled jumble under the basement stairwell, and any and all food served -- including hot ham and rolls, a Milwaukee staple -- is prepared by Skowronski and her daughter.

But don't let the bar's humble appearance fool you. It was named one of the Best Bars in America by Esquire magazine, confirming what many Milwaukee residents already knew to be true: the Holler House is a true American classic.

Here's what you should know before you lace up your bowling shoes or sidle up to the bar:

Location: 2042 W Lincoln Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53215

Hours: 4 p.m. until close every day except Monday.

You're having: An Old Fashioned or a Gin Rickey, two of Skowronski's specialties.

How much does bowling cost? $4 per person, per game. (Don't forget to tip the pinboys!)

Best Yelp review: "Point blank, Holler House is a dive. They have no tap beer, the place is old and kind of smells like your Grandpa's back porch and there are women's garments hanging from the ceiling. I don't care. Marcy is the best. She knows everyone who ever lived in the neighborhood and many of those interred [in the cemetery] across the street. Better yet, she has nothing but good things to say about them."

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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