WASHINGTON – On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, members of the White House Bowling League assembled at the Old Executive Office Building for their regular weekly match. They were turned away, never to return.

Four years after being told they were a security risk, the league’s florists, ushers, carpenters, Secret Service agents and retired government staffers bowl at Fort Myer, Va., across the Potomac.

Members of the oldest accredited bowling league in the nation’s capital have been allowed back to their historic two-lane basement hideaway only once – to clean out their trophies and other memorabilia.

The storied maple and pine lanes used by presidents for 50 years have become run down, damaged by water and construction debris.

“If you saw (the lanes) you’d cry,” said a league member who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by his superiors. “They’re ruined.”

The White House declined to allow a New York Daily News reporter to see the lanes, which are occupied by contractors involved in the building’s renovation.

League President James Mattingly said the Sept. 11 security rationale given for the league’s eviction was suspect – nearly every bowler had a security clearance, and those who didn’t, like all White House visitors, had a background check before being cleared into the complex.

“They just wanted us to go away,” said Mattingly, a Treasury Department staffer and former Secret Service official.

Even after security fears eased slightly by the end of 2001, White House administrators brushed aside appeals to let the league retrieve its hallowed ground.

A gift to the nation from anonymous presidential pals back home in Kansas City, Mo., the lanes were inaugurated in 1947 by Harry Truman, who wasn’t much of a kegler. Three years later, the league was formed. In 1955, the lanes moved from the West Wing basement to the Old Executive Office Building to make room for a mimeograph room.

Lady Bird Johnson and Muriel Humphrey, wife of Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, bowled together every week. Lady Bird told one old-timer she liked to bowl because it didn’t muss her hair.

Richard Nixon was such an avid bowler he paid the $400 annual lease fee for the automatic pinsetting machines out of his own pocket. Even during the Watergate furor, the 37th President would steal away to the basement, bowling alone while Joe Taylor, who ran the mail room, kept score.

Secret Service officials confirmed that for a few months after Sept. 11 the league was denied access but said security is no longer an issue for the bowlers.

But at least until the first phase of the Old Executive Office Building’s renovation is completed next August, the White House Bowling League will remain an oxymoron.

“Once the construction project is complete, this matter will be revisited,” said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius.

League Secretary Dick Conn said the bowlers have grown fatalistic about their prospects.

“It would be nice to go back one day,” Conn said, “but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

(c) 2005, New York Daily News.

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