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Hawaii's Most Endangered Historic Places


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Hawaii has a rich history that’s reflected by the built environment that surrounds us. How we treat this history is a commentary on how much we value our past, Or sometimes, how little. Shockingly, compared with the rest of the U.S., Hawaii is dead last in the number of listings on the National Historic Register, with 335. It’s a statistic that can’t be blamed on our size: Wyoming, with half Hawaii’s population, has 763 listings on the national register, and Rhode Island, with a tenth of Hawaii’s land area, boasts 525.

“It’s not that Hawaii has fewer historic properties, it’s that we have less recognition of our historic properties,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation (HHF).

This year, we partner with HHF once again to identify the places we can’t afford to lose, from the canals bringing water through our communities to the places where our children grow, always with an eye toward how we can develop spaces for the future in a way that doesn’t neglect our past.

The Board of Water Supply Buildings

Honolulu, Oahu

Photos: Olivier Koning

What is it? Fronting Beretania Street, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply was designed by architect Hart Wood, founder of the Hawaii Regional Movement. Created at the end of his career and life, the Engineering Building was built in 1938, and the Administration Building in 1957—the two are connected by a distinctive bridge. The buildings reflect a modernist style, with Beaux-Arts accents including a bas-relief, an Asian-influenced sunscreen and a front-entry canopy with upturned corners and ornate columns. “It’s a landmark structure that represented, symbolically and functionally, the Board of Water Supply,” says Glenn Mason, an architect and architectural historian who co-authored a book about Wood.

What threatens it? Development. The Board of Water Supply is on prime downtown real estate: six acres with five buildings and a large parking lot. The Board wants to develop the parcel of land to raise money, but its request for proposal (RFP) doesn’t set any limits, except to exclude the pumping station on the corner.

Says Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply: “We wanted to give the developers the flexibility to look at the whole site. We don’t want to limit their creativity, to maximize the benefits.” He says that he is aware of the cultural significance of the site and that a detailed history was included in the RFP.

But that’s not sufficient, says Mason. “What they’re saying with this RFP is that our legacy of creating good urban spaces is over. With density increasing all around us, here you have a modest-size building, with a wonderfully landscaped and composed front yard, being put on the auction block. It just makes no sense.”

What can be done? Any proposal is subject to the approval of the Board of Water Supply and the City Council. Lau says it was the Council that originally put forth the idea, and plans will eventually be open to public comment. Additionally, the Board of Water Supply itself could weigh the proposals based on historic preservation and give higher priority to those developers that consider architectural conservation in their plans. “[It’s about] choosing the right developer who is sensitive to, and embraces, the qualities of these historic properties,” says Faulkner.

Ewa Plantation Cemetery

Ewa Beach, Oahu

What is it? The Ewa Sugar Plantation, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the most intact neighborhoods from the plantation era. The historic sites, including its cemetery, are still part of a thriving community. The cemetery was the final resting place of immigrants and some plantation managers. Markers include both wooden crosses and headstones made of lava rocks. Some have Japanese inscriptions; the oldest legibly dated markers are from 1902.

What threatens it? As the sugar industry collapsed, the Oahu Sugar Co. sold the plantation to the City & County of Honolulu in the mid-’90s. Although the city and the community have worked to rehabilitate and restore parts of the plantation, some areas—such as the cemetery—have been neglected. Markers have moved, a fire has burned some of the wooden crosses and kiawe and weeds grow aggressively. “Gravestones are just sitting there, toppled over,” says Mitchell Tynanes, an Ewa Beach Community Board member.

What can be done? It looks like only community pride can save the cemetery: According to the Department of Facility Maintenance, there are no plans for improvements or any construction there. Ross Sasamura, chief engineer for the department, says budgetary challenges are to blame.

“The city hasn’t gone in, and we cannot wait,” says Tynanes, who coordinates cleanup efforts through the Lion’s Club. Monthly cleanups are sparsely attended, but a dedicated handful of community members go regularly to clean up and create an updated map of markers, which have shifted over time.

A Friends of Ewa Cemetery fundraising site, set up by the community, gives the proceeds to the Lion’s Club, and community cleanups are organized and posted through the neighborhood board. To donate, visit gofundme.com/394jtw. To participate in cleanup efforts through the Ewa Beach Neighborhood Board, visit honolulu.gov/nco/nb23.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2020
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