Going, Going, Gone?

Think for a moment about a building you know well.  Say the downtown Honolulu office building where you work or the Costco store where you stock up on giant strawberries. Now imagine that building in some distant future, facing its final days. Imagine that Costco sitting forlornly, paint peeling, doors covered with weathered sheets of plywood, surrounded by a fenced-off, vacant parking lot turned ash grey, with weeds growing up all around.

I wonder, would anyone try to save the Costco? Maybe, if, in those far-off days, the building represents a vanished way of life. Maybe then you’ll tell your refrigerator to order giant strawberries and they’ll get beamed into your home. People will cruise by the abandoned wreck of the Costco in their automated hovercrafts and say to each other, “Remember when we used to shop there? Ah, those were simpler times. You always got to see your neighbors there. Every time the strawberry teleporter is on the fritz, I miss those carefree days. Maybe somebody ought do something with that building, turn it into a museum or something.”

I don’t mean that as facetiously as it sounds. Working on this month’s feature on endangered historic buildings, every one of them once a vibrant part of people’s lives and work, got me thinking. When Maui High School students first filed into class in the 1920s, could they see a day when their brand-new buildings would be reduced to eerie ruins?

That’s when I started flipping the equation around, wondering which of the buildings I take for granted as permanent are, in fact, doomed. Will I open the newspaper someday to read that the Cades Schutte Building, where we put together this magazine, is slated for demolition? Or the apartment building where I live in Hawaii Kai? It seems so solid, 15 stories of reinforced concrete. But is it a building for the centuries? What does it have left, another 50 years? 100? Are there social or economic changes coming that would render the building as obsolete as Maui High School?

You don’t even have to be very old to see buildings you know boarded up, left to rot, taken down. As communities age, some things outlive their usefulness and somebody has to show up for the end of the party. When I attended Waipahu Intermediate School in the early ’80s, much of the campus still comprised graceful, 1920s Territorial school buildings, board-and-batten construction on concrete foundations. This was the original Waipahu High School campus built during the plantation days. To me, at age 12, it felt ancient, but I realize now that, at the time, the campus couldn’t have been more than 60 years old. Termites and the climate had done their work, however, and the buildings were in poor shape. Some time after I left, the state simply tore them all down.

At the same time, in the 1980s, my family would often go on base at Barbers Point, visiting family doctors at the dispensary, getting groceries at the commissary. I bought Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut at the exchange, got a cool pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses from Frank at the optometry shop and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the base theater. Since then, of course, Barbers Point has mostly closed.

A couple of years ago, I drove out to Barbers Point to see what it was like and found a modern ghost town. Drifts of garbage blown by the wind had piled up against the doors of the exchange. Weeds sprouted tall out of every crack in the sidewalks. I couldn’t hear a sound, except the wind.

If you’d asked me in the ’80s which place I preferred, I would’ve said Barbers Point. Kids, as a rule, don’t like school, and the base trips were almost always for weekend fun, including long days at White Plains Beach. But now, I wish the state had refurbished the 1920s Waipahu campus instead of tearing it down—it was uniquely Hawaii and put a dignified, civic face on a stretch of Farrington Highway dominated by strip malls and low-income apartments. The abandoned Barbers Point facilities, on the other hand, just looked like run-down, generic buildings, nothing special at all. The sooner they are replaced, the better.

Well, enough. I’ve already exceeded the amount of nostalgia any writer in his 30s is allotted. Reminiscing about the past is one of the oldest clichés in the book, but I’ll leave you with just one more.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.