63 Merchant Reborn
After being covered up in plaster for decades, one of Honolulu’s most historic buildings gets a dramatic new look.
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Because 63 Merchant is on the state Historic Register, the two had to have their renovation plans approved by the state Historic Preservation Division. Bernstein says the state’s response ended up shaping their philosophy for the project. “Once they saw what was in here, they basically said, do whatever the hell you want,” Bernstein says. “Their stance is, if the interior has been changed already, all you’re doing when you say you’re restoring is creating an elaborate fake.”
Accordingly, the contractors aimed for a functional, modern office space, preserving original features and materials wherever they could. They decided, for example, not to re-create the building’s original double-hung wooden window frames, which were prohibitively expensive and a security risk to boot. On the other hand, the arched sections of glass at the top, which hadn’t been touched since the 1800s, stayed.
Bernstein says, “It gave us a lot of freedom. We tried to be sane about things, let the grandeur of the building take care of itself, and get the hell out of our own way.”
Of course, tear into a 134-year-old building, and you’re bound to run into a few surprises. Kyser and his crew encountered walls behind walls, hidden doors and amazingly archaic utility features. “The building was built before Honolulu had electricity,” Kyser says. “And the phone lines were these lead-sheathed cables that none of us had ever seen before. You know today, telephone wire is quite thin, thinner than a pencil. These things looked like water hoses. It was a big learning experience.”
Not only were Kyser’s workers surprised by the outsize utility cables, they couldn’t figure out how they connected to Honolulu’s grid—there were no visible lines connecting the building to the utility poles on the street. It wasn’t until they pulled the first-floor carpet up that they discovered the manhole leading to a basement with the building’s utility boxes.
Despite a few hiccups, though, 63 Merchant turned out to be fundamentally solid—masonry structures are durable creatures—and, by the time we toured the building in January, the bulk of the work was complete.
Bernstein hopes to have the renovations finished by April, and to have a tenant in the second-floor spaces by the beginning of June. The first floor will continue as the offices of the Trust, and the building itself has been renamed The Harriet Bouslog Building, just as Steve wished.
Bernstein says he’s already gotten a lot of enthusiastic responses to the building’s newly refreshed face. “It’s been such an interesting experience personally, seeing the impact it’s had on the community down here, because everybody talks about it,” he says. “Working here and being in a place where you feel fine about staying late, you see the vibrancy of what’s happening downtown.”