Could This New Proposal Save the Aging Natatorium from Destruction?
According to the state Historic Preservation Division’s rules, plans made by the city and state to demolish the historic site can’t move forward until all viable alternatives have been ruled out.
Updated on Feb. 9, 2021.
Duke Kahanamoku walked under the grand Beaux-Arts arches into the Natatorium on Aug. 24, 1927, ready to break in the new public swimming pool. It had been 15 years since his first Olympic medal—a gold in the 100-meter freestyle—and three years since his last. He was a global celebrity, attracting thousands of people to this inaugural swim, accompanied by live music and an opening ceremony. He dived in, to much fanfare. It was his birthday.
That was 90 years ago. Since then, the pool has been used by many: from schoolchildren learning to swim to servicemembers training during World War II. But it closed years ago. While the Natatorium is still standing, it is only barely so, crumbling beneath years of neglect. In 2013, the city and state agreed to demolish the pool and move the arches inland, much to the chagrin of preservationists who wanted to see the structure, which has been declared a National Treasure, restored.
However, the plan can’t move forward until all viable alternatives have been ruled out, according to the state Historic Preservation Division’s rules. That’s where the National Trust for Historic Preservation has come in, with new renderings for a proposal designed by engineers Hans Krock and Alfred Yee.
“Our intent was to have something maybe not everybody would be happy with, but would really honor its history and what it was intended to be,” says Brian Turner, senior field officer for the Trust. Officially, the Natatorium is called the Waikīkī Natatorium War Memorial, built to honor those who served in World War I. The Trust is proposing the pool remain, using concrete slabs to make it easier to see the bottom (1), concrete chevrons filtering in ocean water (rather than a seawall) (2), and large openings on the corners for the water to leave (3), which would improve circulation and essentially replace the water every six hours. “The simplicity of this design is really its strength.”
Photo: Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
“I think this is the first fresh thinking on this issue in decades,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. However, it’s not without some issues—mainly, does the water quality meet pool rules, and how much is this going to cost?
Robert Kroning, director of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, says officials are consulting with the Department of Health to figure that out. “What we’re trying to work with is how much of a structure are we able to create that looks the most like the current Natatorium but doesn’t have to be called a pool so we don’t have to meet the pool rules,” he says. Meeting those rules would add a lot to the overall cost. (Other alternatives could cost up to $70 million to tear it down or rebuild it.) “We want to continue honoring those who [served] in World War I … all of our intentions are to work together.”
“We want the city to say, ‘Yep, this is a viable option and appears to be feasible enough that we can move forward with including it in the EIS,’” Turner says. “What the city needs to do in the immediate stage is communicate with the state about these pool rules, agree that there has to be flexibility.” After all, he says, the pool wouldn’t be that different from the lagoons at Ko Olina or even the semienclosed beach at Kūhiō, which is protected by a seawall.
The City and County of Honolulu released its environmental impact statement in late 2019, saying that it planned to rehabilitate the natatorium to protect features including the stadium seating and the 100-meter ocean-fed pool. The plan found the estimated $31.8 million rehabilitation would cost less than demolition, estimated at $35.2 million. However, this was pre-pandemic and its resulting budget shortfalls.
Learn more at savingplaces.org/places/natatorium