“Before the mid-1890s, a soldier was issued his basic kit of uniform and ration, three meals a day, and a place to sleep,” says military historian Joe Janesic, Coast Defense Study Group, Los Angeles. “For anything extra, the nearest store at many posts was miles away.
“The solution: A regional commander would contract a vendor called the post sutler who held exclusive privilege to provide goods and services to soldiers. These sutlers were enormously corrupt, and often soldiers became indebted to them. The post exchange grew out of the need to better serve enlisted personnel.”
Construction of the Fort Rosecrans Post Exchange, a large, red-brick building, began in 1908, its architectural style unlike the Colonial Revival of other nearby structures.
According to San Diego Union and Daily Bee, April 5, 1908, the Fort Rosecrans Post Commander, Major G.W. Gatchell, stated: “The post exchange is established at most army posts for the purpose of making the life of soldiers more enjoyable. The building is large enough to contain a gymnasium, library, and a lunch counter…where soldiers can buy pies and cakes…” and other non-essentials.
And so it was. The building was completed with a main floor, basement, and a half second story finished as an interior balcony. Costly, up-to-date gymnastic paraphernalia, including traveling rings, horizontal bars, weight machines, vaulting horses, and two punching bags sat on hardwood platforms. Installation was such that all apparatus could be removed or suspended from the ceiling and the floor used for dancing.
In the basement were two bowling lanes installed in 1909 by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. The company installed billiards and pool tables elsewhere in the building.
The authors contacted Brunswick to ask if photos existed of the alleys installed at former military posts, in particular, at Fort Rosecrans. Brunswick’s vice-president of capital equipment, David M. Sella, researched their archives but said nothing was available prior to the 1930s.
Communications continued with Sella, and Brunswick gifted two vintage bowling pins for San Diego’s renovated building. Local craftsman, Jim Craig, constructed a handsome wooden wall mount for one of the pins, which is included in a permanent history exhibit presented to the Navy by the authors.
Most of the Army’s early post exchange buildings were constructed from the same government blueprint. Furthermore, according to San Diego Union and Daily Bee, Feb. 22, 1909: “The work of installing the bowling alleys at Fort Rosecrans will begin this morning… they are the same as were recently built in the gymnasium building at Whipple Barracks near Prescott, Ariz. by Brunswick’s LA rep, S. P. Dysinger.”
The authors contacted the Arizona Historical Society, which was able to provide photographs of Fort Whipple’s bowling lanes. Since no photographs of the Fort Rosecrans alley have been discovered, they can rely on the Fort Whipple replica.
The Post Exchange and gymnasium served soldiers until Fort Rosecrans property was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1959 for a submarine support facility. Soon after, a renovation scraped the sporting equipment, a second story added, and the building was employed otherwise.
For the past 20 years, the handsome brick building stood empty and forlorn, until the 2020 renovation. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed a public grand opening, but today, the Security Department at Naval Base Point Loma occupies the former Army Post Exchange building.