Waikiki's Ilikai Hotel and Suites Turns 50

One of Waikiki’s most iconic landmarks celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Here’s the story of how this hotel/condo hybrid came to be.


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A photo of developer Chinn Ho (second from right) and associates at a groundbreaking ceremony in the early days of the Ilikai, compared with what the hotel looks like today.

Photos: Olivier Koning, Historical Photos: Courtesy The Ilikai Hotel
 



Then and now—The Ilikai maintains its classic image.

It may be hard to believe now, but when the Ilikai opened in 1964, people thought it was gargantuan. “A monster mass of concrete and glass,” said this magazine’s predecessor, Paradise of the Pacific. “Its enormous bulk would send into shock the most phlegmatic citizen newly arrived in Honolulu with deep-etched Hawaiian conceptions of a little grass shack in Kealakekua.”

The magazine meant that as a compliment, devoting a chunk of its December 1964 issue to celebrating the Ilikai for its modernity, for being, when it “emerged sky-high in February of 1964,” the largest condominium project in the world. “The Ilikai is big, brash, and full of muscle. It is Chicago, it is Manhattan, it is new Pittsburgh … it is part of a new Hawaiian boldness that has been sharply criticized, but is simply too full of vigor to suppress. It suggests no impression of languid uke strummings. That is for other hotels, perhaps on other islands.”

Paradise attempted to dub the building “The Big I”—a nickname that, happily, did not stick.

What did stick was the Ilikai’s sheer presence, which would be aided in no small part by its weekly appearance in the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0 from 1968 to 1980, cementing it as the definitive hotel of Waikiki’s postwar era, modernism’s answer to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It is now one of the most legendary, recognizable buildings in the 50th state.

VIPs lived there. Celebrities stayed there, performed there. Hawaiian musical acts, restaurants and nightclubs made the Ilikai one of the most genuinely local corners of Waikiki.

And yet, the Ilikai almost didn’t happen. It was certainly never meant to be a hotel, not at first. It took the investment smarts of legendary developer and stockbroker Chinn Ho to pull it off, and even he didn’t have a guaranteed hit on his hands.

 

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