Our Town: Kamehameha V Post Office

Goodbye mustard yellow, hello a new paint job



The Kamehameha V Post Office, now in eggshell.

Photo: Mae Ariola

In 1979, the state renovated the Kamehameha V Post Office on the corner of Merchant and Bethel. In April of that year, this magazine complained that after two years and more than $500,000 spent, the state was painting the building an off-putting mustard yellow. That was the original color of the building, argued the state Historic Preservation Office. But, said a spokeswoman, over time the paint job “will probably tone down with the weather.”

True enough. Over the decades, the color faded to a less virulent, but no less unattractive hue. Finally, the building has been repainted—a pleasant cream color that’s harmonious with the neighborhood. Architect Glen Mason was charged with the painting specs. “We looked at chips under the microscope, and we painted it the second color it had ever been painted.” To Mason, the building has been so altered over the years that “a slavish adherence to the original color seemed a bit arbitrary.”

Asked if he too hated the mustard color, Mason said, “I didn’t care for it very much. In fact, when they painted it that mustard color in the 19th century, they may have taken one look and said, Whoa, let’s paint it again.”

The post office in its former mustard paint job.

Photo: Brett Uprichard

The old post office, which now houses Kumu Kahua Theatre, doesn’t get much notice. It is, however, on the National Register of Historic Places and also on the register of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s the oldest surviving public building in the United States constructed out of reinforced concrete.

In 1870, Kamehameha V commissioned brickmaker J.G. Osbourne, who learned the relatively new art of concrete construction in his native England, to design and build the structure. Constructed for a modest $13,000 (about $200,000 in current dollars), the building took two years to complete, because the concrete was constantly rewetted to keep it from curing too quickly in the Island sun.

When the post office was complete, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, wrote: “Built out of the best materials and in the most faithful manner, it is calculated to stand for an indefinite period—proof against the gnawing tooth of time or the ways of the elements.” And, clearly, able to survive a bad paint job or two.


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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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