Michael Horne
Bar Exam

How Falcon Bowl Was Saved

And how the nationally historic Riverwest bar and bowling alley is being transformed.

By - Jul 12th, 2023 06:47 pm
Falcon Bowl. Photo taken July 11, 2023 by Graham Kilmer.

Falcon Bowl. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

In late June 2021, Nest 725, the last remaining Wisconsin outpost of the Polish Falcons of America [PFA] announced it was going to dissolve and planned to sell the building at 801 E. Clarke St. in Riverwest that had been its home since 1945. The fraternal organization is “a not-for-profit, member-driven, community life insurer with 20,000 members nationwide.” It was founded in Chicago in 1887, with Nest 725 established here in 1916. The 1882 building and its 1914 addition at the southeast corner of N. Fratney St. was destined to become the Nest’s third, and final, roost.

It is not often that news of an insurance company divesting itself of an old headquarters building would lead to a great deal of apprehension, if not angst, amongst its neighbors in a working-class district of mostly single-family homes and duplexes. Yet that was exactly the case: the 12,502-square-foot Nest 725 building sat on an 8,400-square-foot lot — large for the neighborhood, with a potential for redevelopment. Out-of-state investors with deep pockets are today aware of Milwaukee and its close-in neighborhoods like Riverwest. A neighborhood group was determined that this historic structure was not to be razed or to become an empty nest.

Why such interest?

Rare it is for an insurance company building to come on the market equipped with four bars — one with a pool table — a banquet hall with a proscenium stage, a nice upstairs apartment and six vintage 1956 bowling lanes within the nation’s sixth oldest continuously operating bowling alley, officially sanctioned since 1915. Around these parts, we call it the Falcon Bowl.

Neighborhood Cooperative Comes to the Rescue

The Riverwest Investment Cooperative was founded in 2003 with a mission “to catalyze projects that will help Milwaukee’s 53212 flourish in the decades to come.” The first such organization in the nation, it was formed at a time when it was difficult to find local investors in the community. Just as the early Polish settlers had combined their meager savings to create magnificent churches like St. Casimir, built in 1899 just down the block, the modern micro-capitalists pooled their funds to buy, renovate and sell key properties in the neighborhood. When the Falcon Bowl became available, they voted to place an all-cash offer of $500,000 on the building and registered 810 E. Clarke St. LLC with the state on December 10th, 2021. On December 13th, the sale was complete.  The new owners were resolved to maintain the historic use of the facility as a community space, and to help it evolve. Now all they had to do was to find an operator to run the joint.

A New Operator

Daniel Gnadt, the owner of the 1925 South Shore Bowl in Cudahy, boosted its revenue by offering novelties like Glow Bowl, Sunday Fun Day, and a dozen regularly scheduled leagues, including “Better Bowling Through Alcohol,” held once a month at 8 p.m. on Saturdays. In November 2022 he expanded his holdings by purchasing the Castle Lanes in Racine. Two weeks later, he signed a lease to run the Falcon Bowl, and applied for his tavern license on November 16th. He holds equal shares in the operation with his partners, William Desing and Russell J. Grabczyk, former Riverwest residents. Desing’s father, also named William, raised his six children in a small bungalow there despite being a bank trust officer, which generally comes with a North Shore address. He was instrumental in saving the nearby Messmer High School from closure in 1984; now his son is contributing in the preservation of another community asset.

Help With Transition

The new partners had much-needed help in the transition from R. Lynn Okopinski. She and her husband John rented the Falcon Bowl from PFA beginning in the 1980s. Following her husband’s death, Lynn ran the place herself for 11 years. She offered to stay on to see that the bowling leagues could complete their season, as well as to show the new guys the many, many moving parts of her surprisingly complicated saloon. These include the usual things like refrigeration, multiple draft beer lines and light switches of unknown purpose, still a mystery to her after four decades. In addition, the new operators would have to contend with such nuisances as the vintage mechanical systems needed to operate the pin-setting and ball-returning functions of the bowling lanes.

A Work in Progress

In May the partners revealed designs for the gradual transformation of the upstairs tavern and meeting hall, taking its cues from the downstairs 1956 bowling alley decor, all Fiberglas, Formica and funky fun, yet retaining the spirit of the place, as manifested in its vintage bar equipment, right down to the grandfathered double-basin sink. I covered the lengthy history of the place in a 2016 Bar Exam entitled “Falcon Bowl, a Polish Milwaukee Treasure.” I noted that much of the furniture in the establishment was used to store things that had piled up, which I considered to be a homey touch. But it was clear even then that there was much more than a dive bar within these walls, what with activities for children, and a wide variety of uses for the hall, including concerts, and events like Our Lady of Divine Providence Church Festival, where home-cooked meals feature Polish and Puerto Rican specialties and music by Riverwest’s woman accordion band, The Squeezettes.

The Tavern Today

The faded signs on the entrance to the Falcon Bowl remain to greet you, and the pool table is the first thing you encounter after climbing a short flight of stairs to the main bar in the original pre-bowling alley portion of the complex. If the table is in use ($1, up from $.75 in 2016) you’ll have to wait until the player takes a shot before you head to the bar to take your shot, chased down with a Lakefront Brewery Riverwest Stein Beer. Brewery owner Russ Klisch says his beers have been on tap here since at least 1991. That’s before the Milwaukee Brewers had racing sausages.

The room is much the same as it was, including the large beer cooler next to the South Park pinball machine. But the great display of snacks is considerably diminished, the jukebox is gone, and the walls are now barren as they await their turn in the great redecorating scheme underway here. Downstairs the bowling area is also little changed, with lockers ajar and shoes piled up on shelves. A repair manual for the pin setting equipment is on a counter, within easy reach. Unlike much of the stuff down here, it has gathered no dust.

So, at first glance, not much new is in sight. That’s smart on the part of the operators. Regulars will still come in for drinks and bowling no matter what the place looks like, and this will keep the cash register happy while the big work right now is in the hall above the bowling alley. Go ahead and “Slow Your Roll at Falcon Bowl,” as the new slogan suggests. Ask the bartender if you can take a peek through the door just beyond the men’s room, which has a very old urinal, spared, thus far, in the remodeling.

Big Changes in Banquet Hall

I don’t think they ever used to call it a “Banquet Hall” in the old days, but the new owners and operators hope to use marketing to increase their visibility and community engagement. The license application anticipates that 40% of revenue will come from “Entertainment,” up from about 10%. Thus the banquet hall is where the majority of work is concentrated now, as a mobile platform laden with painting and carpentry tools attests. The old, soiled, adhesive acoustic tile ceiling is mercifully gone, as well as the fluorescent light fixtures and their harsh light. There are now circular fixtures above along with discreet track lights. The ’70s wood paneling that covered up many original details has been removed, but the owners wisely spared the original wainscoting and delightful maple floor. The stage has been likewise brought back to original form and is to be somewhat expanded. (Nobody wants to watch a cramped accordion band perform. These folks need elbow room!) The kitchen has been improved, and the side bar likewise has been restored to its original look, a step above the hall’s floor in its little nook.

No progress has been made on the beer garden patio in the rear of the building. First things first.

Plan Your Party

The new Falcon Bowl (falconbowlmke.com) website invites us to “Plan a Party” in the space, suggesting, “Polka Band — Birthday Bash — Fundraiser — Wedding — Vendor Fair — Celebration of Life [that’s what the kids call funerals nowadays–Ed.]” There are four musical events planned for the remainder of July, including live music in the hall following Riverwest 24 on July 29th.

When the work in the hall is complete, the project will make its way elsewhere in the building. Now is a good time to check out this neighborhood gem and see for yourself as history is retained while an old building is transformed for a new generation thanks to many public-spirited citizens who saved this landmark.

On Tap - Sponsored by Lakefront Brewery

  • Eagle Park Ekto Kooler Hard Seltzer
  • Good City Brewing Co. Pilsner
  • Lakefront Brewery Bumble Bear
  • Lakefront Brewery IPA
  • Leinenkugel Summer Shandy
  • Miller High Life
  • Third Space Happy Place
  • Lakefront Brewery Riverwest Stein Beer

Photo Gallery

The Verdict

  • Trade Name: Falcon Bowl
  • Location: 801 E. Clarke St.
  • Neighborhood: Riverwest
  • Subdivision: Fratney’s Subdivision
  • Phone Number: 414-264-0680
  • Website: Falcon Bowl (falconbowlmke.com)
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Falcon-Bowl/120178294660123
  • Twitter: None
  • Description: Original corner structure was built as tavern in 1882. Bowling lanes and hall above added in 1898; lanes sanctioned in 1913. Was site of fraternal organization from 1945 until The Polish Falcons of America Nest 725 was dissolved on June 14th, 2022. Old timey classic Milwaukee tavern has its quirky charm.
  • Signature Drink: Shot of brandy and a beer to get started.
  • Capacity: 220
  • Restrooms: 6 Restrooms
  • Year Established: As Polish Falcon Nest 725, June 20th, 1945.
  • Year Building Constructed: 1882, bowling lanes, hall date to 1898 addition.
  • Property is assessed at $16,800 for the 8,400 square foot lot [$2.00/s.f.] and $213,900 for the 12,502 sq. ft. building for a total assessed valuation of $230,700. (2016 assessment: $178,000.)
  • Taxes $5,492.97 (2016 Taxes: $5,413.18) paid through an installment plan.
  • Property Owner: 801 E. Clarke St. LLC, formed 12/10/2021; Thomas Stocco Registered Agent. The affiliate of the Riverwest Investment Cooperative purchased building and contents for $500,000 on 12/13/2021
  • Business Owner: Falcon Bowl LLC , Daniel C. Gnadt Agent [D.O.B. 07/24/1981] 33% owner. Members: William E. Desing (33%), Russell J. Grabczyk (33%)
  • Business: Banquet Hall, Tavern and Bowling Alley; Alcohol 45%, Entertainment 40%, Food 10%
  • Walk Score: 85, Very Walkable; Most errands can be accomplished on foot (2016 Score: 80)
  • Transit Score: 53, Good Transit; Many nearby public transportation options. (2016 Score: 54)
  • Bike Score: 93 Biker’s Paradise; Daily errands can be accomplished on a bike
  • Game of Chance: 1 South Park Pinball Machine
  • Game of Skill: 6 Bowling Alleys, 1 pool table
  • Aldermanic District: 3 Jonathan Brostoff
  • Police District: 5


7/14: Music by The Panoptics, Blind Hill, and Nate Scheurell, show starts at 8 p.m., $10 cover

7/16: Music by Spoy

7/20: Swing Dance with live music

7/22: Falcon is closed for a Private Event

7/29: Live music in the hall following Riverwest 24

8/5: Music by Lack of Reason, Floor Model, and Mighty Deerlick

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