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9 Most Endangered Historic Sites in Hawai‘i

The buildings, estates and towns most in need of saving in 2006.


This list, compiled by the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, in cooperation with the State Historic Preservation Division, selects some of Hawai‘i’s most endangered historic places. Included are buildings, monuments, landscapes and entire communities, everything from simple recreation cottages to grand estates. Although the sites vary in historic era, architectural style and original purpose, they all contribute to our understanding of Hawai‘i’s history. “These places tell the stories of our communities and the people who shaped them,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. “If we don’t preserve them, the full scope of our heritage will be incomplete.”


While inclusion on this list does not automatically protect or preserve the sites, it’s our hope that it will raise awareness and inspire active participation in the community around us. The heritage we preserve helps give Hawai‘i a sense of place, and a soul.


In this feature, learn more about this year’s nine most endangered historic sites in Hawai‘i, the threats to their survival and what can be done to save them. We haven’t forgotten about last year’s list, either; check the end of the article for updates on the War Memorial Natatorium, the Old Maui High School and other historic places.


The Walker Estate (Nu‘uanu, O‘ahu)

Walker Estate

photo: Augie Salbosa


What is it?

A stately, 5.7-acre estate in the heart of Nu‘uanu, this property is one of the last great Honolulu estates of the glamorous Big Five era. The Classical Revival house was built in 1905 by George Rodiek, of H. Hackfeld and Co., which later became Amfac Inc., and the estate became a hub of high society under the ownership of Henry Alexander Walker, president of Amfac and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. Architect Bob Fox says, “It’s an extraordinary historic asset. It’s a turn-of-the-century Hawaiian estate, and there’s very little like it left on the island, certainly not in central Honolulu.”


What threatens it?

TR Partners, a local firm currently in the process of buying the Walker Estate for more than $10 million from the current owner, Holy-Eye, has applied for demolition permits to make way for new development on the property. “We’re still evaluating it, trying to find the best use for [the property], but as of right now it’s looking like we’re going to bulldoze the whole thing,” says developer Greg Clark.


What can be done?

Although the Walker Estate is on both the National Register of Historic Places and Hawai‘i’s historical register, neither of these designations offer much legal protection from demolition. It’s private property, and as long as TR Partners does everything by the book, they’re free to do what they want with it. Unless Clark and his partner, Tom Enomoto, decide on a compromise plan that preserves the property’s historic structures, someone would have to swoop in with enough cash to buy the estate. As of this writing, no such wealthy benefactor has stepped forward.


Queen’s Theater (Kaimukī, O‘ahu)

Queens Theatre
photo: Rae Huo

What is it?

The Queen’s Theatre, near the top of Wai‘alae Avenue in Kaimuki, is a survivor from the golden age of cinema. Built in 1936, the 850-seat theater hosted everything from traveling vaudeville shows to 25-cent matinées. In later years, it became a second-run theater that hosted midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and then a XXX theater that was eventually raided by the police in the mid-1980s. It’s lain dormant ever since, but its fading art deco façade still tantalizes theater buffs and neighborhood activists. Lowell Angell, a local theater historian, says, “It’s still one of the few, if not the only, remaining theater facilities that could be renovated and put back into use.”


What threatens it?

The reclusive owner of the theater, Narciso Yu. It’s not that he wants to tear it down. Ginny Meade, executive director of the Greater East Honolulu Community Alliance, says, “Ciso used to tell me that he had a dream that it would be a theater again, and so he wouldn’t let it become a car parts store like the Cinerama.” But Yu has proved resistant to any other plans for the theater, including restoration. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to get a hold of him. “Everyone in the world wants to restore or purchase or do something with that place, and they all call me to find out what’s going on,” Meade says. These days, though, even she doesn’t know how to reach him.


What can be done?

Not much, barring a change of heart on Yu’s part. Angell says cracking down on the landowner would probably not be constructive. “All the city and the state can really do now is enforce the building codes, which usually results in things being removed, not replaced,” he says. But people keep trying to get through to Yu. Nadia Ribeiro, owner of the Brazilian Show Room, next door to the theater, says, “People come in three times a day, asking for him.”


Sanju Pagoda, Honolulu Memorial Park(Nu‘uanu, O‘ahu)

photo: Rae Huo

What is it?

One of the finest examples of traditional Japanese architecture in Hawai‘i, the Sanju Pagoda in the Kyoto Gardens of Honolulu Memorial Park is also, believe it or not, the largest pagoda in the world. Architect Robert Katsuyoshi modeled it after the Minami Hoke-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, except 11?2 times larger, using concrete construction instead of the traditional wood to allow it to be used as a columbarium, along with the neighboring Kinkaku-ji Temple. In 2004, the pagoda was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


What threatens it?

Twenty years of neglect. Over time, the neoprene roofing material has sprung leaks, exposing the reinforced concrete rafters to weakening moisture and decay. “[The neoprene] was supposed to be the best thing ever, but it turned out to be not so good,” says architect Lorraine Minatoishi Palumbo. “The eaves are in jeopardy right now, in bad condition and very heavy. At any point, one of those eaves could fall down. If one falls, it falls on the next, and the building would most likely collapse. It could happen pretty darn soon.”


What can be done?

Until recently, the situation had been complicated by a lawsuit over the leadership of Kyoto Gardens Park, the non-profit entity in charge of fundraising.


The nonprofit’s assets were frozen pending a ruling on its rightful board of directors: a group of niche and plot owners, or City Councilman Rod Tam and Nu‘uanu businessman Vic Hejmadi. Fortunately, a settlement was reached last month that will allow regular grounds maintenance to begin again, but it will likely take $2 million or more to reconstruct the pagoda’s eaves and rafters, and install a new roof.


The Plantation Manager’s Mansion (‘Ewa Plantation Villages, O‘ahu)

Plantation mansion

photo: Rae Huo


What is it?

Built in 1925, the plantation manager’s house was the most imposing residence on the ‘Ewa Sugar Plantation—a two-story colonial revival with a large yard and a grand entry drive, as well as an arched porte cochere. After sugar operations ended in the early 1970s, the house suffered from a lack of maintenance until the City and County of Honolulu bought the plantation property in 1995. The manager’s house was placed, along with the rest of the ‘Ewa Sugar Plantation Villages, on the National Register of Historic Places, and, until a few years ago, was regularly used as a neighborhood gathering place for meetings and parties.


What threatens it?

Although the house suffers from termite damage and its lead-based paint and out-of-code plumbing and electrical wiring must be replaced, state Rep. Rida Cabanilla says the primary threat to the property is the City and County’s lack of a plan. Since Mayor Mufi Hannemann succeeded Jeremy Harris in 2004, the house has been closed to the public, and some areas of the property look like a junkyard. “Why is it in such a state of disrepair? I call it demolition by neglect,” Cabanilla says. “It’s a shame, because it has so much historic value.”


What can be done?

There is no shortage of interest in the property; the ‘Ewa Historical Society has said it would like to acquire the manager’s house, as has the ‘Ewa Villages Homeowners Association. But some say that the city’s current administration has been frustratingly unresponsive. Tesha Malama, manager of the ‘Ewa Village Homeowners Association, says, “Right now, it’s a question of the city moving into action, but with everything else the city has to do, I really think they’re not paying attention to what’s happening over here.”


Koke‘e (Kaua‘i)

photo: courtesy David Cornwell


What is it?

Ahh, Koke‘e, an idyllic 4,345 acres of mountainous Kaua‘i state park. It’s also home to 114 secluded recreational cabins—92 of them more than 50 years old—which have been caught in the middle of a preservation battle. The 20-year leases on the rustic cabins are set to expire at the end of this year, and the state plans to put them up for open auction, sparking heated protests from the current lessees, who want the option to extend their leases, or, failing that, be compensated for any additions and improvements they’ve made. (Under the current lease terms, all improvements revert to the state at the end of the leases.)


What threatens it?

It depends on who you ask. The Koke‘e Leaseholders Association contends that an open auction will jeopardize historic cabins by opening them up to newcomers who care little for Koke‘e’s unique heritage. “Our desire is for the state to see the light and negotiate directly with the people who are preserving their property, who have created this community,” says David Koch, who has been a cabin owner since the last auction in 1985.


Peter Young, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, points out that about 40 of the current leaseholders have applied for conservation-district use permits that would allow them to demolish or move their cabins. “It’s an interesting mindset, when we’ve heard hours of testimony on the importance of protecting and preserving the place, and at the same time, people are stepping forward with applications for permits to destroy the very thing they’ve been testifying in defense of,” Young says.


What can be done?

Everything is on hold right now, while a lawsuit brought by the Koke‘e Leaseholders Association over compensation plays out in court. Young says that, whatever happens, any new leases will include restrictions appropriate to the preservation of historic structures. A proposal is also in the works to designate Koke‘e as a historic district, which would give further legal protection to the cabins.


The Gulick-Rowell House (Waimea, Kaua‘i)

photo: David and Sue Boynton


Amazingly, this two-story coral limestone house in Waimea, Kaua‘i, has been in almost continuous use as a residential home since missionary Peter Gulick built it more than 178 years ago. “It’s got all this wonderful history spanning from the missionary times through to the sugar era,” says Linda Faye Collins, president of the Kikiaola Land Co., an offshoot of the original Waimea Sugar Mill Co., which has long owned the property. The house became a home for the sugar company’s plantation managers, and, at one point, its basement even served as the town jailhouse. Today the Gulick-Rowell House is prized by historic-minded community members and architects as an irreplaceable example of traditional New England architecture in Hawai‘i.


What threatens it?

The litany of woes you’d expect from a house nearing its bicentennial—sagging wood floors, water damage, cracks in the foundation, to name a few. A 1997 inspection estimated the cost of renovation at $1.2 million, a figure that can only have grown since then. The situation has taken on a new urgency this year: The two sisters who have lived in the house their entire lives are moving out. Architect Bob Fox, who helped inspect the building, says vandalism and environmental wear and tear now pose increased threats to the newly empty home. “Once a house is unoccupied, it’s amazing how quickly it deteriorates. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like the whole building gives up and just rots away,” he says.


What can be done?

Kikiaola Land Co. is looking to create a nonprofit organization to raise funds for repair and renovation. Possible solutions include turning the house into a public museum, building a separate bed and breakfast on the property that would finance upkeep and repair of the Gulick-Rowell House, or creating some other adaptive reuse plan for the property.


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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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