New Aiea Public Library Preserves Historic Sugar Mill Style

Aiea’s new public library was built on the site of a sugar mill. And it shows.
Photos: David Croxford

The end of Aiea Heights Drive has undergone a thoroughly modern makeover. For nearly 100 years, people heading up from Moanalua Road were greeted by the sight of the Aiea Sugar Mill, perched on the hill overlooking Pearl Harbor. Now, instead of the time-worn refinery and smokestack, you’ll find a sleek new structure changing the skyline of the neighborhood.

The new Aiea Public Library is a striking presence in the middle of an open field, concrete business buildings and nearby homes.  A wall of glass windows and lofty gable roofs give it a very contemporary feel. But look a little closer and you’ll find influences from the site’s sugar plantation past.

It’s no wonder. Architect Glenn Miura, a principal with local firm CDS International, grew up in the shadow of the sugar industry. When he was 7, his father, an Army veteran, moved the family to Halawa Veteran Housing. Miura and his friends wandered all around the sugar mill, wondering about the big building they weren’t allowed to enter.

Later, his family moved to Waipahu. His uncles worked in the sugar mill and his grandparents owned a general store just down the street. Even as a teenager, Miura remembers playing baseball at Hans L’Orange field, the smokestack visible in the distance.

So when the Aiea Public Library project came up, Miura went right back to his roots. 

“The mill is such an important part of history,” Miura said.  “It’s what brought over so many of my friends grandparents and my grandparents from Iwakuni.  … [So I thought] Why don’t we have a form, a feeling of a mill and explore the spirit of it.”

That inspiration appears in exposed air conditioning ducts, concrete pillars and floors, and industrial-style lighting. Targeted task lights similar to desk lamps highlight the bookshelves. The reddish-brown tone of the floor and the accent that runs along the roofline outside echo the color of the dirt that stained everything from plantation workers to the walls of the mill.

The gable, or steeply-pitched, roofs are references to the clerestory common in old mills. The windows which were built into almost-hut-like structures above the main roofline were designed to let hot air out of the warehouses. The design uses the windows as skylights to increase natural light.

More light streams in through floor-to-ceiling windows that flank the keiki-size tables and chairs in the kids reading area and the club-like chairs in the adult reading room. Vertical lines inside and outside add a striking detail.

“We wanted to do something to catch people’s eyes,” Miura said. “The open side has a straight view down to Pearl Harbor. I had a vision of a lantern on top of a hill.”

One element of Miura’s vision won’t be ready by this weekend’s grand opening.  A large space above the circulation area was created to frame an image of the old sugar mill. In the rendering, Miura placed a circa-1915 photograph from the state archives. But once the overhang for lighting went up above the circulation desk, a ladder couldn’t reach the spot. Placing anything there will be tricky, so that has been put on hold.

Other historic items will be moving in after the ceremony. Bricks from the sugar mill will surround a World War II memorial, which is being moved from the former library’s grounds. Also coming over will be two murals by Maui-born Tadashi Sato. The artist who created the mosaic on the floor of the State Capitol Atrium and had his work displayed in the Guggenheim and Whitney, was paid $8,500 in 1964 to create the works for the original library. They will be featured right above the main entrance and in the program room, located across from the doors.

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Aiea Public Library is located at 99-374 Pohai Place. The grand opening is Saturday, July 19 at 10 a.m. Call 483-7333 for more information.