Hawaii's Most Endangered Historic Places
Hawaii has a rich history that’s reflected by the built environment that surrounds us. How we treat this history is a commentary on how much we value our past, Or sometimes, how little. Shockingly, compared with the rest of the U.S., Hawaii is dead last in the number of listings on the National Historic Register, with 335. It’s a statistic that can’t be blamed on our size: Wyoming, with half Hawaii’s population, has 763 listings on the national register, and Rhode Island, with a tenth of Hawaii’s land area, boasts 525.
“It’s not that Hawaii has fewer historic properties, it’s that we have less recognition of our historic properties,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation (HHF).
This year, we partner with HHF once again to identify the places we can’t afford to lose, from the canals bringing water through our communities to the places where our children grow, always with an eye toward how we can develop spaces for the future in a way that doesn’t neglect our past.
The Board of Water Supply Buildings
Photos: Olivier Koning
What is it? Fronting Beretania Street, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply was designed by architect Hart Wood, founder of the Hawaii Regional Movement. Created at the end of his career and life, the Engineering Building was built in 1938, and the Administration Building in 1957—the two are connected by a distinctive bridge. The buildings reflect a modernist style, with Beaux-Arts accents including a bas-relief, an Asian-influenced sunscreen and a front-entry canopy with upturned corners and ornate columns. “It’s a landmark structure that represented, symbolically and functionally, the Board of Water Supply,” says Glenn Mason, an architect and architectural historian who co-authored a book about Wood.
What threatens it? Development. The Board of Water Supply is on prime downtown real estate: six acres with five buildings and a large parking lot. The Board wants to develop the parcel of land to raise money, but its request for proposal (RFP) doesn’t set any limits, except to exclude the pumping station on the corner.
Says Ernest Lau, manager and chief engineer of the Board of Water Supply: “We wanted to give the developers the flexibility to look at the whole site. We don’t want to limit their creativity, to maximize the benefits.” He says that he is aware of the cultural significance of the site and that a detailed history was included in the RFP.
But that’s not sufficient, says Mason. “What they’re saying with this RFP is that our legacy of creating good urban spaces is over. With density increasing all around us, here you have a modest-size building, with a wonderfully landscaped and composed front yard, being put on the auction block. It just makes no sense.”
What can be done? Any proposal is subject to the approval of the Board of Water Supply and the City Council. Lau says it was the Council that originally put forth the idea, and plans will eventually be open to public comment. Additionally, the Board of Water Supply itself could weigh the proposals based on historic preservation and give higher priority to those developers that consider architectural conservation in their plans. “[It’s about] choosing the right developer who is sensitive to, and embraces, the qualities of these historic properties,” says Faulkner.
Ewa Plantation Cemetery
Ewa Beach, Oahu
What is it? The Ewa Sugar Plantation, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the most intact neighborhoods from the plantation era. The historic sites, including its cemetery, are still part of a thriving community. The cemetery was the final resting place of immigrants and some plantation managers. Markers include both wooden crosses and headstones made of lava rocks. Some have Japanese inscriptions; the oldest legibly dated markers are from 1902.
What threatens it? As the sugar industry collapsed, the Oahu Sugar Co. sold the plantation to the City & County of Honolulu in the mid-’90s. Although the city and the community have worked to rehabilitate and restore parts of the plantation, some areas—such as the cemetery—have been neglected. Markers have moved, a fire has burned some of the wooden crosses and kiawe and weeds grow aggressively. “Gravestones are just sitting there, toppled over,” says Mitchell Tynanes, an Ewa Beach Community Board member.
What can be done? It looks like only community pride can save the cemetery: According to the Department of Facility Maintenance, there are no plans for improvements or any construction there. Ross Sasamura, chief engineer for the department, says budgetary challenges are to blame.
“The city hasn’t gone in, and we cannot wait,” says Tynanes, who coordinates cleanup efforts through the Lion’s Club. Monthly cleanups are sparsely attended, but a dedicated handful of community members go regularly to clean up and create an updated map of markers, which have shifted over time.
A Friends of Ewa Cemetery fundraising site, set up by the community, gives the proceeds to the Lion’s Club, and community cleanups are organized and posted through the neighborhood board. To donate, visit gofundme.com/394jtw. To participate in cleanup efforts through the Ewa Beach Neighborhood Board, visit honolulu.gov/nco/nb23.
Lower Hamakua Irrigation Ditch
Hamakua, Big Island
What is it? The Lower Hamakua Irrigation Ditch is an irrigation system and waterway that was used during the sugar plantation era. It was excavated in 1906, not just for watering sugar crops but also for sending the cane to the mill for processing. Its total length is about 26 miles, including tunnels, flumes to control water flow and open ditches with stone walls.
Community members say that, because of the ditch’s role as a community water source and home to micro-ecosystems that include wildlife such as crayfish, ducks and dragonflies, it’s more of a historic waterway than a simple water distribution system. “We don’t have many streams in the state of Hawaii; this is essentially a stream with an ecosystem,” says Margaret Wille, an attorney and Hawaii County councilmember. “This connects the community from the past to the future,” she says.
What threatens it? In 2004, heavy rains collapsed part of the ditch, blocking off the transfer of water, says Glenn Okamoto, an engineer for the state Department of Agriculture. The state applied for a FEMA grant to rebuild the section, which was approved. The department’s proposed fixes enclose and bury a five-mile section of the irrigation ditch, which critics like Wille say would destroy the spirit of this historic property.
As the project went through the approval process, a memorandum from the state historic preservation division said that the project would have an inverse effect on historic properties, and required some additional study and documentation.
When the community was notified on the eve of its execution, it immediately mobilized and protested to FEMA and the state. The delay has been successful—so far. Despite having purchased the pipes and hired a construction firm, the state has timed out on the FEMA funds, putting the plan is on hold while alternative funding is located.
What can be done? Luckily for preservationists, the timed-out funding means the entire approval process for the project will have to start again. The Department of Agriculture could change their plan, and repair the section without enclosing it. Two landowners with the ditch running through their land recently scored a win against a case of eminent domain with the state, says Wille, also the attorney who represented them. “If they owned it, they could do anything they wanted. Now, you have to go through the state and federal money involved in environmental and cultural assessments.”
“The community should be part of the conversation,” she says. “We want an informed community with a say-so in what happens.”
Fisherman’s Wharf, Kewalo Basin Harbor
What is it? Fisherman’s Wharf is typical of roadside, or pop, architecture, the likes of which you’d see along Route 66—motels, souvenir shops, even the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign with its starbursts and distinctive lettering.
The restaurant opened in the 1940s as a single-story building; a second story was later added, giving it a boatlike appearance. “One of the features of roadside architecture is that it’s so flashy and exuberant, it catches your eye, so it becomes a sign for itself,” says Mike Gushard, an architectural historian at the state Historic Preservation Division (SHPD). “I think it’s interesting because it’s tacky. It’s tiki culture, which is a legitimate expression of culture.”
What threatens it? The building may be too expensive to save. Accounts vary, but it seems that the restaurant has been shuttered since 2009. In 2010, it looked like the venue might be revived when the owners of Pizza Bob’s on the North Shore took over the lease.
“Their estimates were $1 million to rehab the building. Ultimately, it would have been $3 million,” says Anthony Ching of the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA), the landowners at that time. “It needs new grease traps and the plumbing runs down the center of the [cement] pad, they would have to dig up the interior of the building to fix it. And the second floor isn’t ADA-compliant, they’d have to build an elevator to the second floor,” he says. But there are still good bones to the building, according to Ching, especially on the bottom floor and bar area.
What can be done? Just last year, the parcel of land including Fisherman’s Wharf was transferred to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). Says Garett Kamemoto, a spokesman for OHA: “The planning process is ongoing, and we’ll potentially be looking at it by next summer.”
That means if historic properties in the area are important, there will be a public hearing and commenting phase through the HCDA. “The public can have a role in shaping the plan,” Faulkner says.
The Hawaii Public Schools
What is it? Many of the Hawaii Department of Education’s inventory of 258 campuses are historic. Some, including McKinley High School, are on the National Register of Historic Places, while others aren’t, but meet the criteria for preservation.
These buildings are not just integral to school-age children, but to the community at large. “[A school] is almost always a focus of the community,” says Gushard. “When we have public meetings, they’re almost always in a school.” And the architecture adopted by each school reflects a diversity based on myriad influences. “They tell the entire architectural history of the Islands,” he says.
What threatens it? Despite their historic value, our schools are not in good shape. “We’re 51st in the nation for capital improvement budget reinvestment in schools,” says Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for school facilities. “We spend $284 per kid for school facilities. The Mainland average is $1,200. If you spread that among the 258 campuses, we’re in a state of decay.”
In November, the Legislature passed a law that charges the DOE with developing public school lands to raise money for upgrades. The pilot program will consist of three school locations, and all the revenue gleaned is to be put into a fund specifically for so-called “21st-century” upgrades. Preservationists such as Gushard would like to see the DOE first take inventory of all the schools to see how many are historically important. Additionally, the choice of private entities selected to monetize the DOE land needs to be thoughtful, says Faulkner. “The criteria for selection is murky and that’s part of the threat.”
What can be done? Experts say 21st-century education can happen in a 19th-century building. One way is to involve the SHPD office early and often. “We can pre-agree on what’s historic and then they know what to expect,” Gushard suggests.
The community can also take advantage of the public engagement phase of the project, which L’Heureux says will be robust. “We’re working with architects and planners, a community engagement firm, the same one that worked with Kamehameha Schools.” He says he’s done his homework on successful public-private partnerships that help ailing school districts.
He disagrees that the schools are endangered and, although the project is in its infancy, says taking an inventory will be among his first steps. “When we talk about developing, people get edgy,” he says. “It’s not about development, it’s about schools. It’s based on what the community needs.”
Kaahumanu Church, South High Street
What is it? Historic churches are an important symbol of the missionary period of Hawaii's history. The Kaahumanu Church, built in 1876 on the grounds of an old heaiau, has a congregation that is 181 years old.
"The structure was designed by Edward Bailey. The complex from the church to the Bailey House was originally King Kahekili's compound. He was the last ruling alii of Maui before unification," says the church's kahu, Wayne Higa.
Its traditional steeple stands in stark constrast to the verdant natural environment around it. For years, Higa says, the clock on the tower was central to Maui and defined "Maui time." Its graveyard holds the blind preacher of Hawaii, Bartimaeus Puaaiki, who was also the first licensed pastor of Hawaiian ancestry.
What threatens it? The church's wooden structure is nearly two centuries old, and termites and salt air have ravaged it. "We've been given a figure of $700,000. We're looking at restoring the sanctuary of the church and four other structures on the property," Higa says. "One was a theater, and it's used by our Hawaiian immersion preschool. It needs a lot of repairs. From a safety point of view, with children there, it's at the top of our list."
He also says they hope to restore other buildings to become a kitchen and office space. "It's more than rebuilding buildings," Higa says. "It's becoming part of the community again."
What can be done? Restorations of historic churches generally rely on their congregations for funding and labor. But with only 30 members, Higa says there has not been consistent maintenance over the years. They are exploring how to raise more money from sources outside the church wlls, but it's a tough learning process for a congregation without many businesspeople, Higa says. "We're taking it one step at a time and giving it to God to help lead us."
Here’s what’s happening with a few historic places we’ve written about in previous years.
Coco Palms Resort in Kapaa, Kauai
A developer has finally purchased this defunct historic resort, which was ravaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Ron Agor, the architect on the project, is dedicated to maintaining its historic integrity. “We are rebuilding structures that can’t be saved on the same footprint,” he says. “All we’re really doing is replacing wooden walls with windows with big glass and putting a railing up. We’re keeping all the structural elements. The whole idea is not to dig the earth, because it’s pretty sacred land. Even if one doesn’t believe in the spiritual, you’re compelled to respect other people’s beliefs.”
The Honolulu Advertiser Building in Honolulu, Oahu
Photo: Courtesy Historic Hawaii Foundation
It’s mixed news for the old Honolulu Advertiser building. A year ago, the 1929 Beaux Arts-style structure was purchased by Honolulu-based developer Downtown Capital and is now being converted into workforce housing. The back portion, where the printing press and warehouse were located, has already been torn down and converted into a high-rise.
The old editorial office building is on the block for phase two of the project. The builder will retain the historically significant features of the news building, which include the front façade facing Kapiolani Boulevard as well as the lobby and the stairway, but the rest will be demolished and replaced with a 46-story tower and parking structure.
Although some history will be saved, it’s not much of a win for preservation. “The entire building tells the entire story. When you start only saving the front facade, you’re ignoring the whole story,” says Faulkner.
The Queen’s Retreat in Kailua, Oahu
Interestingly enough, something that threatens this location is also helping it: television crews. “The Hawaii Five-O film crew came in this year and they made some significant improvements to the foundations of the Irwin House, the house that was constructed in 1893,” says Paul Brennan of the Kailua Historical Society.
But it was accidental that Brennan came across the crew, who he said had no idea of the significance of where they were filming. After explaining its history, he was able to supervise the carpenters for a few days. “They took a great deal of care, responding with the kind of malama that we wish would happen all the time,” Brennan says.
Despite this, the landowner has still done nothing to restore or protect the property, which is rife with graffiti and continues to deteriorate.