A Mid-Century Time Capsule
A recently discovered treasure trove of vivid Kodachrome slides takes us back to the futuristic ‘50s, when modernist architecture was all the rage in Hawai’i.
In the middle of the 20th century, Honolulu boomed. New buildings sprang up like mad, and the architects of the mid-century designed them to excite people with endless possibilities. Definitely modern, these buildings seemed to float in the concrete dreams of a new era.
But architectural fashions have changed, and remodels and redevelopments have already altered or eliminated many of Honolulu’s mid-century marvels. Fortunately for us, the exuberance of 1950s architecture was faithfully documented by local architect Roger Benezet, who took color slides of many buildings in that period.
Benezet was known for his work on many local projects, including the Diamond Head School for the Deaf and the Blind and what is now Honolulu Community College. Frank Haines, chairman emeritus of Architects Hawai’i, remembers Benezet as an interesting guy who did a lot of small jobs for the major architectural firms around town, adding that Benezet "…was mid-height, overweight and he liked his martinis."
Benezet died in 1978 at the age of 67, leaving these slides as his legacy to the Historic Hawai’i Foundation. More than a hundred of the slides from this era are available to the public. His time capsule of slides are all in Kodachrome, known for the vivid color and detail that can endure over time if given adequate storage and handling. What can be seen in the photographs of these buildings is the overall architectural concept. Benezet’s slides don’t just capture the buildings when they were new, but their context, too, the streets and neighboring buildings where they were meant to live.
REMEMBERING THE MID-CENTURY
The prewar, territorial economy supported lower-scale buildings in Hawai’i, such as the Alexander & Young, Stangenwald, Judd and McCandless buildings. Mid-century buildings at first fit with that scale, only to become overshadowed by an economy heading for high-rises and statehood. Grand avenues, like Kapi’olani Boulevard, had miles of new structures built on lots with planned parking. With statehood, every company that could have some kind of office in Honolulu wanted one.
The architectural experimentation that began in the mid- to late 1920s in Honolulu continued into the late ’50s and early ’60s, creating what DeSoto Brown, collections manager of the Bishop Museum archives, describes as, "a contemporary Island idiom merging the Jet Age with the tropics."
The architects used elevation and extended planes of concrete to invite the outside climate into inside walkways, winding through open courtyards and gardens. Materials were often a mix of sandstone and lava rock with concrete and steel, which architect Ernie Hara made his trademark in a long and extensive career.
Not everyone took to the new Tropical Space Age style, however. Says Brown, "Architects designed buildings that were thought of as being outlandish rather than original by many local people. Many of the buildings of this mid-century era were given no recognition or respect, nor were they thought of as being worthy of preservation."
Hawai’i’s experience fits a national pattern in which modernist buildings have been orphaned—too weird looking to be beloved, and too young to attract preservationists. There’s a fine line between "dated" and "historic," and many a mid-century masterpiece has disappeared into that gap without a trace.
Some of the Honolulu buildings pictured here have been demolished. Others have since become so ensconced by renovations that they are barely visible today, such as the Gas Co. Building on Bishop Street, peeking out from what looks like a concrete bear hug.
Today we often look critically on this era, in light of of how its development overwhelmed urban Honolulu and spun off to the country and the Neighbor Islands. With Benezet’s time capsule, we can appreciate the brazen inventiveness and stylish exuberance of the architects of the mid-century.
There are always risks to be taken in development of any kind, even when we try to play it safe not to offend anyone. Looking at the work of local architects and designers past, the question now is: Are there architects who are willing to risk such exuberance today?
Scott Cheever is a writer and researcher who has co-authored two recent books, A Close Call: Saving Honolulu’s Chinatown (2005), and Pohaku: The Art of Architecture of Stonework in Hawai’i (2003).
THE GAS CO. BUILDING
STRAUB CLINIC AND HOSPITAL
THE HONOLULU STAR-BULLETIN PRESS BUILDING
THE KODAK BUILDING
"Flat-slab mushroom construction …" is how the Honolulu Star-Bulletin described the building technique used by architect Charles "Pops" Dickey for the Kodak Building. There is no double-hipped Dickey roof here, as this cream-colored, 26,000-square-foot building was built to accommodate the eventual addition of a third floor.
Nonreflecting show windows were mounted at angles so that the sunlight would be reflected downward rather than outward into the eyes of passing motorists. A hundred rolls of film an hour were processed, flip-flopped through mechanical trays and then run through a squeegee-dryer system, where there were waterproof Mastic (a resilient surface) floors. According to the article, there were "two projection rooms, soundproofed for customers to view their moving pictures and Kodachrome transparencies," and "to aid photographers in improving their technique, experts are in attendance at all times."
This was an eagerly anticipated building in town, because of its model darkroom and the convenience it would provide to photographers—including Roger Benezet himself. The lobby was of bleached mahogany from the Philippines and there was a drinking fountain with an electric eye. The doors had electric eyes as well. Gold neon shone from above the entry. Built on the makai side of Kapi’olani Boulevard from McKinley High School for $100,000, the Kodak Building was completed in 1940, very late in Dickey’s career (he died in 1942). The building has since been demolished.