When Bill and Barbara Bollman got married and moved into their 1940s Bethesda colonial, they considered it their starter home. Sixteen years and three additions later, both agree they’ll never move, but not because of the big, new kitchen and family room, or the master suite upstairs. The Bollmans plan to stay in their house forever because of their basement.
Mainly Bill’s brainchild, the basement is the ultimate playground for kids and adults. And it’s the way Barbara got her husband—who had been distinctly against the idea of a spacious new kitchen and family room—to agree to the additions. “I’d remind him about the extra basement space he’d get,” she says. “That got him on board immediately.”
Clearly, this is not just any basement; it encompasses four rooms now. The original room is full of kids’ toys, a Ping-Pong table and other odds and ends. A traditional rec room and an arcade were added with the family’s first home addition. A room that boasts a basketball court and rock climbing wall were added later.
In addition to using the basement as a TV room and a place to store kids’ toys, Bill needed more space for his sports memorabilia and his vintage arcade games. The 15 games, dating as far back as the early 1930s, line the arcade as well as the walls of the basement’s other rooms. His favorites include a 1939 game called the Blue Streak that he remembers from childhood, and Shooting Gallery, a 1961 game that shoots pellets at targets. The most recent, and the only computerized pinball machine, is a Ms. Pac-Man.
Bill, an electrical engineer-turned patent lawyer, has restored the machines himself. Each is in working order with a little basket of change handy. He’s in a network of online traders who swap the games and keep each other posted on anything new to the arcade market. The arcade room also includes a beautifully restored Vendo 81 soda machine, circa 1956, that holds 81 bottles of soda. Bill keeps it stocked. In the rec room, a phone booth from 1951 contains a bright red working phone from that period.
Bill has a 1948 coin-operated popcorn maker that’s undergoing restoration. “I’m just waiting for the chrome guy to finish,” he explains. “There are a few parts in the middle I had to send out to be re-chromed. It’s the same chrome cars used to have on their bumpers.”
His and hers sports memorabilia
Bill and Barbara are self-termed “sports fanatics.” Barbara played high school basketball for three years at National Cathedral School and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and has been coaching the couple’s three children and their teams for seven years. The rec room shows off their sports memorabilia, including a baseball used at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sept. 6, 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. As a collector, Bill is fascinated by Yankees memorabilia. “If you’re going to collect things,” he explains, “Yankee stuff is timeless.” His collection includes seats and signage from Yankee Stadium before it was renovated in the 1970s.
Over the rec room’s fireplace mantel, Bill keeps what he refers to as his “homage to single-season home runs.” Bats belonging to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hang there, as well as one from Roger Maris, though the real find is a Babe Ruth bat from1935. The mantel is a 1930s redwood bleacher from the University of Notre Dame’s football stadium.
Bill even has a water fountain from the first base dugout at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, but it’s stored away. “I can’t find room for it,” he says, “but I’m looking!”
Barbara’s shelf leans heavily toward the Redskins. There’s a Darrell Green jersey, signed player photos inscribed to Barbara when she was a kid, and Bill’s favorite Redskins item of all, “a postcard mailed to me in the 1980s indicating I’d moved up on the season ticket list to number 24,137!” That shelf also holds a football used as a model by the U.S. Patent Office in 1867, according to Bill—a lumpy, rounded affair that barely resembles the modern-day pigskin. Interspersed are pictures of the Bollman kids on their sports teams, clearly sharing top billing with the celebrities around them.
Basketball, soccer and a climbing wall
During the last home addition, a new kitchen, Bill decided to pull out all the stops. By digging a foundation 6 feet deeper than normal, the builder was able to create space for a basketball court 28 feet long by 20 feet wide. The gym has a 14-foot ceiling, a big electric scoreboard with an attached clock, and a professional- grade maple floor created by a company that designs floors for the National Basketball Association. It is painted with colors representing Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, the family’s favorite college basketball teams.
One of the nicest touches in the basement is a wall behind the staircase that leads down to the basketball court. From floor to ceiling, the wall was built with fir boards created from Indiana University Fieldhouse bleachers, vintage 1960s.
The room is a kids’ paradise, as the basketball court can be converted into a soccer field by covering the floor with artificial turf stored nearby. Or the room can be transformed into a volleyball-badminton court by putting up a net. There’s also a rope swing and a climbing rope on a pulley system. It hooks onto an iron bar up in the rafters when it’s not in use.
Tucked away to the side of the court is a Climbing wall that was purchased in 8-foot-wide slabs. It runs up to the ceiling, where an automatic belay system is attached to another iron bar to ensure safety. The three Bollman children, John, 13, Ally, 11, and Abby, 7, host their birthday parties here (John just had a gathering for 26, and Ally had a “camp-out” on the artificial turf for her birthday). When they want to watch sports or a movie, the images are projected on an 8-foot by 5-foot screen.
The walls obviously need to withstand a lot of abuse, so “I went with durarock, a concrete wallboard that absorbs vibrations,” Bill says. “And the ceiling is soundproof tile.” Windows start seven feet up the wall, and none have been broken yet, maybe because they are above kid range—though the Bollmans expect an errant ball to get one of them eventually.
So far though, everything works perfectly. “Bill is very detail-oriented,” Barbara says. “He thought through where every outlet should be.” Bill is just as thorough with the records he keeps of his memorabilia, so when his memory fails him about the details of a certain item, he just looks it up in his carefully organized filing system. “Everything has its provenance,” he says. “I’ve kept it all in order. I just hope my kids don’t throw it all away someday!”
Writer Julie Beaman lives in Chevy Chase.