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.


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).

On a very narrow lot running beside the Ilikai and Hilton Hawaiian Village, the Waikikian was a 1950s tropical oasis. The hotel had tiki torches and rooms that opened onto a pathway leading to the Tahitian Lanai, where the Papeete Bar attracted locals and tourists who came to hear real Hawaiian music. This was not the place to go if you wanted to hear "Tiny Bubbles" or "Pearly Shells," wrote Thais Bullard, of the Traditional Hawaiians United for Music Preservation, in an essay protesting plans for the building’s destruction. Many of the songs were in Hawaiian, with singing at the piano bar by local people of every ethnicity and even tourists who traveled back to the Tahitian Lanai every year for decades. A stand-up choir of regulars brought to life architect George "Pete" Wimberly’s vision for Hawai’i, fusing Polynesian lifestyle with contemporary architecture. As Wimberly writes, "Government, in its own activities and in its buildings, cannot ignore the traditional skills and art forms and expect other people to preserve them for the people." It was the cost of repairs, and the fact that the Waikikian was caught between generations musically, that eventually killed this most famous of tiki-bar venues. It closed on New Year’s Eve, 1996, and was torn down in 2005.

Wimberly and Howard Cook were the architects of this six-story building on Bishop Street, built in 1953. The use of polygonal coral blocks in the large, round pillars and planter boxes on the ground floor gives the building the look of Waikiki in the 1950s. The building now houses Hawai’i Pacific University’s Meader Library and Athletic Department offices. Of all the buildings in this photo, it is the only one still in existence.

Cyril "Cy" Lemmon was the architect for the entryway to the Straub Clinic. The firm of Lemmon, Freith, Haines and Jones also did the larger wing on Ward and King Streets. Cy was a friend of many of the doctors who worked at Straub in the late ’50s. The circular entryway had a ramp that led up to the clinic to reorient the entryway from Ward Avenue to the new parking lot on King Street. The entryway, with its stylishly curved metal trim, has been completely absorbed into the expanded Straub Clinic and Hospital and has been reinvented as a courtyard.

Designed by Wimberly and Cook in 1952, the flat roof of this building echoes the line of its second floor, allowing for extensive use of horizontal and vertical detailing, perhaps influenced by architect Mies van der Rohe’s glass cube buildings of this era. This building was on Kalakaua Avenue, across from today’s Wave Waikiki. Blue Crown Stamps were collected at supermarkets during this time, and could be redeemed at this building’s top-floor showroom for such prizes as toasters and lawn chairs. During the 1970s, the building fell into disrepair, in part because this section of Waikiki was less desirable than the beach areas, and because of the decline of trading stamps. The building was torn down in the late 1970s.

Not only is this building long gone, so is the intersection where it sat. Kapi’olani Boulevard used to extend through the lawn of the Civic Center and connect with Beretania Street. Hotel Street ran the length of what is now the lawn behind Honolulu Hale. Located at Hotel Street and Kapi’olani Boulevard, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin Press Building was designed by the firm of Wimberly and Cook, and built, in 1949 for $150,000 (that’s $1.28 million in 2006 dollars). The fleet of green Star-Bulletin cars shown were a fixture for decades at the nerve center of downtown Honolulu.

Ernie Hara is credited by photographer Benezet with the Aloha Savings building on Hunakai Street. This stand-alone building in the Kahala Mall complex has since been extensively redone. Hara graduated from Punahou School and the University of Southern California School of Architecture, class of 1935. He went to work for Claude Steihl, architect of the Church of the Crossroads. It was Steihl who encouraged Hara to bring Asian design elements into his work. Hara was a pioneer in the use of precast concrete with decorative elements and poured-in-place concrete columns. Here he mixed a lava-rock veneer with square panels of concrete to give the building a daring-to-defy-the-ordinary flavor.

This was Kodak’s experiment in running its own retail stores, the result of the boom in color film processing in Hawai’i during World War II and the surge in postwar tourism.

"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.