Our Town

The Kahala turns 40

nothing like an anniversary to make you appreciate local icons. The Kähala Mandarin
Oriental, formerly the Kähala Hilton, is quietly celebrating its 40th anniversary
this year, and, although it maintains a lower profile today than it did during
its glory days, the Kähala remains one of Hawai’i’s most celebrated getaways.

the Kähala Hilton opened in 1964, the hotel made waves with its clean, modernist
building style, designed by architect Edward Killingsworth. Architect Daniel Chun
says the building’s trellised, white exterior gave it an airy quality and allowed
the huge structure to appear unobtrusive. “It’s like putting lace on a dress,
you disguise the bulkiness of the object by adding some delicacy to it,” Chun
says. “If you stripped all of that away-the pre-cast concrete vertical elements
and the trellis on the roof-you’d just have a box sitting there.”

Ka-hala Mandarin Oriental as it appeared when it first opened in 1964 as the Kahala
Courtesy Kahala Mandarin Oriental

Despite its
ethereal quality, the Kähala got off to a slow start. A 15-minute-drive from tourist
mecca Waikïkï, it seemed a remote, uninviting destination. Hotel management had
to turn on lights in empty rooms to keep the resort from looking like a dark,
deserted failure.

Within a few years, though, the hotel’s isolation became
an asset, as Mainland celebrities and local high society discovered the benefits
of anonymous luxury. By 1967, the Kähala enjoyed a 90-percent occupancy rate.
Eddie Sherman, who chronicled the juicy happenings of the city as The Honolulu
Advertiser’s three-dot columnist in the ’60s and ’70s, remembers the Hilton heyday
fondly. “You can’t believe the names that stayed there. I was fishing in a loaded
pool. I’d be there every weekend, my son would swim in the pool and I would just
hang out with the celebrities and BS.” It was Sherman who dubbed the hotel the
“Ka-Hollywood Hilton.”

Notable guests included Frank Sinatra, John Wayne,
Johnny Carson and Lucille Ball. The Kähala Hilton’s reputation got an additional
shot in the arm in 1968, when the cast of Hawai’i 5-0 rolled into town. The hotel
was often featured in the cop drama’s plots, and guest stars were always booked
into the Kähala while in town.

In 1994, the Kähala Hilton became the Kähala
Mandarin Oriental Hotel, after a 1992 lease negotiation increased the annual rent
from $96,000 to $5.6 million, forcing owners WKH Corp. to sell the hotel to local
developer Bill Mills and Tokyo General Corp. Kähala Hilton fans quibble over the
merit of subsequent renovations, but the hotel’s overall aesthetic remains as
classy as ever. In fact, Chun wishes there was more Honolulu architecture like
the Kähala: “I think, unfortunately, it hasn’t had enough impact. We just need
a different kind of architectural design here-more minimalist, less heroic, less
Euro-centric. The more the architecture disappears, the more visitors like it.”