The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Waikīkī’s International Market Place
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The Golden Age
Inside the old treehouse.
Photos: courtesy watg architects
There was a time when the International Market Place could not have been mimicked so easily. When it opened in 1957, it was a first-rate Waikiki attraction. In its prime, it was lush, mysterious and enchanting, a faux-Polynesian fantasyland for the Mad Men era. All around there were dangling vines, tikis, cascades, foot bridges crossing dark pools, and kooky surprises, like the clocks. The Market Place ran on “Hawaiian Time,” so every clock on the property was set seven minutes behind. And there were tree houses hanging in the giant banyan. One served as a private dining room, the other as a radio broadcasting studio.
The Market Place has good pedigree. It was designed by the renowned architect Pete Wimberly, whose firm went on to build some of the world’s foremost theme parks and resorts, and by Donn Beach, who launched America’s tiki craze when he opened his Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood in 1934.
The original layout included a series of little “villages,” representing Japan, Korea, China and the South Seas. They faced a grassy courtyard and a central bazaar, which had a few dozen thatched stalls for vendors, an amphitheater for Polynesian dancers, and open spaces for crafts makers. It sounds simple enough, but the design featured a labyrinth of criss-crossing pathways, which were all too easy to get lost upon.
Naturally, the shops catered mainly to tourists, but there was always something to draw residents, as well, at least for the first few decades. Among them was the Gourmet Bazaar, which a 1957 article in The Honolulu Advertiser called “a gourmet’s shop equal to anything in New York or Paris.” It offered cheeses from across Europe, bottled sweetmeats, British biscuits and uncommon delicacies such as “bottled fried grasshoppers” and “rattlesnake canned meat.” According to the article, “No collection of rare and imported foods like this bazaar has heretofore been seen in Hawaii.” Or possibly since.
At the Market Place’s nightclubs, residents and visitors mingled in roughly equal numbers. Generations of notable Island musicians found a home there, including Martin Denny, the bandleader behind the fusion of jazz, pop and jungle noises called “exotica.” Before Don Ho got so big he had to move his show into the Hilton Hawaiian Village Dome, he had a regular gig at the International Market Place.
But things change. When the Market Place opened in 1957, statehood was still two years away, it took 12.5 hours to get to Honolulu from the West Coast by air, and fewer than a quarter of a million visitors a year came to Hawaii. With statehood, and the advent of the Jet Age, the visitor count grew exponentially (8 million last year). Through the 1970s, Waikiki grew denser and more towering, parking grew scarcer and the tiki craze began to look more asinine than alluring. In the 1980s, the drinking age went up, the club scene sputtered out, and the International Market Place’s Golden Age was behind it.
The Living Heart of the Market
Fifty years of banyan tree graffiti.
For a second opinion on what the banyan tree has to say, I call Steve Nimz. He’s an arborist—a tree doctor—and he has been caring for this particular tree since 1971. He agrees to meet me beneath the banyan.
“There are people who talk to trees,” Nimz tells me. “I’m not one of them. I don’t talk to trees. I don’t hug trees. I’m not a hokey guy. But I do feel trees. I touch trees.”
He slaps a hand onto the side of the banyan and gazes up into the canopy, demonstrating his technique. In order to truly understand a tree, he says, to really get a sense of the mass, breadth and life of the thing, you have to do this.
This tree has been the living, breathing soul of the International Market Place since Day One. But it goes back further than that. It was planted sometime in the mid-19th century by a New Zealand entrepreneur named Harry Macfarlane and his wife, who lived on this land for a while. (Macfarlane’s other historic claim to fame is that he’s the guy who brought gas lighting to Hawaii, hanging the first gas lamps over the billiard tables in his Honolulu saloon.)
A young alii named William Lunalilo owned the property, a bit of prized high ground in a Waikiki dominated at the time by wetlands. Lunalilo had a summer home here, along with a cottage and some outbuildings, all fenced in to keep wandering animals out. It was here that Lunalilo died of tuberculosis in 1874, a little more than a year after becoming Hawaii’s first elected king.
He bequeathed the property to a friend, Queen Emma, who kept it as a summer retreat, and watched the banyan grow, until her death in 1885. Emma established The Queen’s Hospital, predecessor to The Queen’s Medical Center, and her estate—including the land beneath the International Market Place—is still managed today to support the hospital.
The banyan is now about 60 feet tall, and the new mall will have restaurants on its top floor at eye level with the upper reaches of the canopy. On the ground level, all of the brick and concrete now covering the base of the tree will be replaced with landscaping. This will let more oxygen and moisture into the ground.
“We’re going to have a much better environment for the tree than we have now,” Nimz says. “But even though you’re improving the situation, you never know, it might be happier under the concrete. It’s been able to adapt to all of this, and it does seem pretty happy right now.”
Nimz has created a tree protection and preservation plan, which he will direct throughout the building process. It includes, among other things, mapping the roots, so that pilings can be driven in between them and not into them. It also involves monitoring the tree’s vital signs with sensors in the ground, on the trunk and in the leaves. This will allow Nimz to respond quickly if the tree starts to get too stressed.
But Indian banyans are tough. “I don’t want to say bulletproof, but they’re incredibly resilient,” Nimz says. “Let’s just say, if we were on the Mainland, and this tree were an oak, this project would not be happening.”