63 Merchant Reborn

After being covered up in plaster for decades, one of Honolulu’s most historic buildings gets a dramatic new look.

Plastered over until just a few months ago (below), the first-floor windows and main entrance of 63 Merchant have once again been revealed.

Sometimes buildings become historic  just because they’re old. Stick around long enough and someone will pin a medal on you. Other buildings, however, earn their historic status, hosting landmark events and acting as cornerstones of their cities.

63 Merchant is one of these, and it’s finally getting a facelift worthy of its lineage.

Originally commissioned by Charles Reed Bishop in 1877, the two-story brick building became the home of the Bank of Bishop, the first bank in the kingdom. Honolulu was a much smaller town in those days; the bank was just about the center of town. Its intersection, Merchant and Kaahumanu Streets, was known as “The Corner,” and was famous for its gossip.

Of course, Bishop was more than just a banker; his offices at 63 and 77 Merchant became the birthplace of both the Bishop Estate (today known as Kamehameha Schools) and the Bishop Museum.

 The Bank of Bishop moved to a new location in 1925, after which the Merchant Street building hosted a series of tenants ranging from a Japanese steamship line to the Hawaii Meat Co.

In 1950, 63 Merchant was occupied by what would become its most well-known tenant: the law firm of Bouslog and Symonds. Its offices would go on to be the prepping grounds for some of Hawaii’s most significant court cases.

Harriet Bouslog is credited, for example, with helping to abolish the death penalty in Hawaii, thanks to her work to win a stay of execution for accused murderers John Palakiko and James E. Majors. She was also a staunch advocate for labor in Hawaii; she helped defend ILWU head Jack Hall and six other union activists in 1953 against accusations of communist sedition and violations of the Smith Act.
Bouslog retired in 1978, but bought the building in 1980 and used it as the headquarters of the Bouslog Sawyer Charitable Trust, which she founded with her husband, Stephen Sawyer, to provide scholarships to children and grandchildren of ILWU members.

By the end of Harriet and Steve’s lives, the building had fallen into a state of disrepair. When Harriet died, Steve reportedly lost all interest in inhabiting the building, visiting it maybe three times after her death. Lawyer Mark Bernstein, the trustee of the Bouslog Sawyer Charitable Trust, continued to use the offices, but it was far from a perfect work environment.

“Electrically speaking, this place was a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Bernstein says. “Plumbing-wise, there were galvanized pipes laid in the floors that had essentially disintegrated. We had a massive water leak that no one knew about until the water company came and knocked at the door. We had used 200,000 gallons of water that month.” It turned out that the ground underneath Merchant Street is porous coral; the water had been seeping right into nearby Honolulu Harbor.

In addition to the normal ravages of time, there were more than a century’s worth of additions and kludges that had piled up over the building’s lifetime as a working office space. One of the most obvious was the bricking over of the first-floor windows and the original corner entrance—a renovation bemoaned by a 1971 HONOLULU article as “hideous,” but required by early air-conditioning technology. “When I first came into this building and started working here, it was 1979, and they had a Carrier air conditioner the size of an aircraft carrier, right above the side entrance door,” remembers Bernstein.

But behind all the plaster and dropped egg-crate ceilings, Bernstein could see the potential. “Steve wanted the building to become the Harriet Bouslog Building, and he wanted it to be as beautiful as Harriet. This was one of those real, romantic love stories,” says Bernstein. He started hashing out the details of a renovation project with contractor and wine buddy Mitch Kyser around the end of 2009.

 

Contractors stripped away everything that wasn’t original and refinished each room with a respectful, yet modern feel.

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.”