Queen Emma Building Getting Remodeled

photo: a. kam napier

One of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Hawaii—featured here in our November 2011 issue—is the Queen Emma Building. The owner was planning on dramatically altering its historic façade.

Looks like the work has already started. I noticed today that the building’s funky, midcentury metal grille has been stripped off, and its covered driveway demolished.

What a shame. I realize that, for many people, this has long been considered one of the town’s ugliest buildings. It was even called by some “the pimple building” because of its staggered brick texture. I used to think so, too, until one day—I can’t remember when—I must have walked by it on my way to a meeting, stared at it, and just suddenly got what worked about it. It’s a singular experiment in midcentury modernism, using the naked materials of the structure itself to aesthetic effect. It could’ve been a cheap pile of bricks, but instead, those bricks are designed with thought and playfulness. The texture of the walls comes from a small vocabulary of maybe half-a-dozen brick shapes, repeated randomly, from top to the bottom until the whole thing looks more like fabric than concrete. And the missing grille? See the photo at the link for what it looked like. Many Honolulu buildings from that time used metal screens or louvers to shade their exteriors while still allowing cooling breezes to reach the building. The Queen Emma’s screen was a delightful counterpoint to its brick texture. If the walls were all small, hard corners and straight lines, the screen looked like a metal trellis grown from vines; metal, yet organic.

Well, I’m not saying it was a masterpiece, but it dared to try something different, and that is cool. I wish more of our newer buildings took as many chances.  Haven’t had a moment to make a call about the grille’s ultimate fate, but owner’s plan did call for it to be scrapped, so I assume that’s what is happening.

Any other fans of the building out there? Anyone thrilled to see it get a facelift? Comments welcome.