Reinventing Hawaii’s Round Top
For decades, Puu Ualakaa State Wayside was cared for by one man. Now, its management is changing hands, to a commercial tour company. What the shift means for one of Oahu’s most scenic parks.
Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston lived at Nutridge for three decades, turning it into the estate it is today.
Photos: David croxford
Puu Ualakaa State Wayside—near Round Top lookout—looks the way it does today because of Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston. If you’ve driven around the state park entrance at dusk or dawn and seen a rather scruffy-looking man opening or closing the gate, or mowing along the side of the road, you saw Ralston at work. He took care of the property for 31 years. As he puts it: “Just part of the deal.”
Ralston’s arrangement was one of about 40 leases administered by the Hawaii state Department of Land and Natural Resources statewide. He lived on a month-to-month, revocable lease arrangement for $604 per month, provided he lock the gates, discourage overnight visitors, and generally keep the place in good condition.
For decades, that arrangement worked for both the atypical businessman/entrepreneur and the state parks division.
When Ralston first visited the Nutridge house at a dinner in 1976, there was a volleyball-sized hole in the living-room ceiling and pine trees growing through the roof. The lawn was so overgrown that he couldn’t walk through it. “It was deplorable,” Ralston said. He had to have it.
Ralston, now 72, says he immediately saw the beauty that once existed at Nutridge (see sidebar on page 46 for more history), and could taste the marrow in its bones.
Ralston took over the lease from the previous caretaker. He bought the man’s furniture and his Lincoln Continental and sold them, turned over the proceeds so the man could buy a condo, and then Ralston started the renovations that would span decades.
“People wondered why I would want to take over this run-down house and spend a lot of my money fixing it up when I couldn’t buy it and could only get a short-term lease that was month-to-month,” Ralston says.
But fixing things just made sense to him, even as a kid. “We didn’t have any money, so if we wanted a bicycle, we’d get some rusty wreck and strip it all down and sand it and paint it and grease it up. I was into fixing things up out of need and necessity. I developed the concept of saving things.”
Nutridge was in definite need of saving, and Ralston ended up doing a complete restoration: “Gave it a brand-new roof, redid the floors, redid the wallpaper, redid all the fixtures, took every piece of hardware off, replated everything. We did it right and it was the perfect historic preservation piece.”
Ralston paid for all the work on the house including termite treatment, landscaping of the grounds, as well as any yardwork done outside of the state park. The state estimates he spent about $40,000 of his own money on Nutridge; Ralston figures it cost that much to repair the roof just once.
Fortunately, Ralston had the money to afford all the renovations, thanks to an earlier and equally unlikely-sounding venture. Ralston arrived in Hawaii in 1962 with $60 in his pocket. To make some money, he painted T-shirts with sharks and surfers on them and sold them to sailors. That cruising lifestyle grew into a business called Ricky’s Crazy Shirts—now known simply as Crazy Shirts—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Ralston no longer owns the company, having sold it to Big Dog Holdings in 2001. He remains a consultant.)
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, business was good enough at Crazy Shirts to enable Ralston to buy and invest in the restoration of aging properties that intrigued him, most of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The magnificent Graystones house on Nehoa Drive? That’s a Ralston rescue. So is Mānoa Valley Inn and Maui’s Lahaina Inn.
Ralston’s projects have taken him across the state and made him philosophical about moving on to his next project.
Ralston handled the landscaping of Puu Ualakaa state Wayside, keeping the place in good condition.
The house retains most of the architectural details originally designed by Hart Wood.
Photos: David Croxford
The end of the Ralston era at Nutridge started with an evening run by Curt Cottrell, the assistant administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks. “I go to the state park frequently and run up Tantalus to look at the view. As I’m running by, I’m always looking at the house, thinking, this is a jewel and nobody knows about it.” Cottrell kept thinking about improving public access and ways to maximize revenue from the unique property for the state parks. “At $604 a month, we’re not doing the site justice.”
Revenue maximization was top-of-mind for Cottrell because the state parks division is stretched thin, with more parks to manage and less than half of the previous budget to do it. In 1998, the state Legislature provided $8 million a year in operating funds while today’s budget has shrunk to a little more than $3 million. “We’re so short on operating funds, we’re looking for coins under the couch to buy dinner,” Cottrell says.
So the time had come for change at Round Top. “It was an equitable relationship for the public to have Rick there, because he saved the house from collapse and preserved a unique, historic structure,” says Cottrell. He credits Ralston for both his work and paying to fix up the property. “But for the past decade, he hasn’t put in any significant improvements,” Cottrell says, which made him look for other options for the property.
An appraisal firm hired to estimate Nutridge’s market value came up with $4,700 per month—more than $55,000 a year. Cottrell sent Ralston the new terms, and Ralston declined to pay what would have been more than eight times his previous rent.
The state opted to remain on a monthly revocable lease, a fairly common arrangement for the state parks department. The state parks division charges tourists and buses for parking at spots that include Pali Lookout, Iao Valley, Hapuna Beach and Akaka Falls to earn the division about $1 million annually.
“We wanted to figure out a way to repurpose the house for public access but in a managed way so we could protect it, while also generating more income,” Cottrell says.
The winning bidder for the new lease, Discover Hawaii Tours, will pay a minimum of $4,700 each month or a percentage of growth—whichever is higher.
Leo Malagon, CEO of Discover Hawaii Tours, appreciates the house’s “incredible location. It’s very historic. A lot of mana. What we would like to do with it is try to protect it and preserve it, because conservation is the key.”
Some of his ideas so far include sunrise and sunset tours, and as a venue for kanikapila. “The idea is to try to bring in the singers and musicians from the Waimānalo and Papakolea communities where the culture can be preserved and shared,” Malagon said.
The new plan for the Nutridge estate includes renting it out as a wedding location.
The big hope for Discover Hawaii Tours is that it succeeds as a wedding or corporate retreat venue. The tour company has 24-hour access, seven days a week. Malagon seems to be working out a lot of ideas, such as possibly installing tables throughout the house and opening it up as a breakfast or brunch spot served by a food truck (as the residential kitchen isn’t equipped to handle that), and opening it up once each month for a nominal fee to civic and nonprofit groups who want to meet or hold parties there. “It was not the state’s intention to make it open and have everybody come in. There’s no control,” Malagon says.
Cottrell says they “have a lot of flexibility. They have a $4,700-a-month nut, and they seem confident they’ll hit that easily.”
Is this the best use of Puu Ualakaa? Round Top resident Charles Black is going to miss Ralston’s touch on the property. Black lived on the mountain his whole life, and remembers in the ’30s going down with his brother to Nutridge, then still a working mac nut farm, with .22 rifles and poking rats’ nests with long bamboo sticks, earning 10 cents per tail for every rat they shot.
“Rick has made it just an incredible property that was more than what it ever was under Mr. Van Tassel’s regime,” Black says. “He has enhanced the grounds with trees and plants and flowers, just made it a very spectacular retreat.”
Black says that, in the days since the transition began, the roadside areas that Ralston maintained grew wild again.
“You can tell right now it’s gone to hell. … I’m sorry to see him go. I don’t believe the state or the city will be able to do the maintenance, and I really don’t feel it’s up to the Tantalus residents to get out there on [weekend] work days to do what the city and state should be doing. As it is a national historic road, it becomes a tourist attraction.”
Chad Thompson, the son of Ralston’s girlfriend, has since taken over as groundskeeper for the home at night, as well as landscaper outside the park gates. It’s a continuation of Ralston’s work, but it also benefits Discover Hawaii Tours to have the area look groomed for clients.
Jennie Peterson, a Round Top resident for 66 years and historian for the Tantalus Community Association, says, “Rick was a fabulous neighbor. He mowed that lawn outside the park,” with a dedication that government workers will never be able to match. “Rick also kept graffiti down a lot. All that work; we’re just so disappointed.”
It’s the same for Ralston. He understands it was a unique situation, an ongoing project to keep the house in good shape. And he has a new project to work on, one valley over. “I’ve got a nice, big farm in the back of Palolo Valley,” he says. When you live month-to-month at the behest of the Hawaii state government, you make sure to have a backup plan. “I’ve been sitting on it for 20 years. … My girlfriend is a real trouper, putting up with all this stuff. She really made it clear and simple when she said, ‘Rick, you can start fixing up the old property instead of fixing up the state’s property.’”
He leaves without bitterness. “It was a lot of maintenance, but I loved it. We had hundreds of beautiful sunsets every year. It was a wonderful community. … I’m going to miss all of them, but right now, I’m overwhelmed with the work to do in my new home to get settled in and clear the jungle there,” Ralston says, adding that he’s also busy with a new line of aloha clothes at another company he founded, Rix Island Wear. “I don’t have a chance to miss anything, really,” he says. “I’m just too focused on looking ahead.”
History in a Nutshell
Of the houses in the tantalus community The Ernest Shelton Van Tassel House, or Nutridge, certainly isn’t the biggest or the most extravagant, but it’s historic enough to be named in the National Register of Historic Places. Here’s how it came to be:
1922: Architect Hart Wood designed the house for Van Tassel, who got the money for the project from his aunt, Marjorie Merriweather Post, a socialite and the founder of General Foods.
1925: Van Tassel had planted about 700 macadamia nut trees there by 1925, but eventually found the wet weather wasn’t ideal for the trees. He focused his macadamia growing instead on the Kona side of the Big Island and decommissioned the farm at Round Top.
1947: Van Tassel continuted to live at Nutridge until his death in 1947.
1983: Rick Ralston took over the lease of the aging estate and saved it from the brink of collapse at least twice.
2014: Today, Nutridge is seeing a change of guard. The Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks re-evaluated its relationship with Ralston in an effort to increase its revenue from the property. “The real goal,” says Curt Cottrell, the assistant administrator for the division and initiator of the change, “was that I wanted the public to have access to the structure because it’s so beautiful and so unique.”
The Making of Hawaii's Nutridge
Left: Nutridge as it appeared in its early days as a macadamia nut farm. Right: Nutridge today.
Historical photo: Courtesy Rick Ralston, Photo: David Croxford
Today, Nutridge Faces the open and vast view of Aiea, the airport, Pearl Harbor and beyond. Although the vista was dramatically less developed when architect Hart Wood designed the place, the residence remains a modest gem that sits in harmony with the abundant forest around it—neither Nutridge nor its environment stands in front of the other.
Nutridge got its name from Ernest Shelton Van Tassel, who established a farm on the property to introduce macadamia nuts as a commercial industry to the world.
Macadamia nuts are an Australian crop; Van Tassel reportedly got a taste of the nut at a party and loved it so much that he saw commercial viability in it and went to the government to see if he could lease land on the slopes between Puu Ualakaa and Puu Kakea for an orchard. Aside from a few trees that people used for shade or as windbreaks, Van Tassel’s were the first to be planted for the purpose of industry, and Nutridge was Hawaii’s first-ever macadamia nut plantation.
Van Tassel moved quickly—Lillian Jonsrud, his friend and 15-year-long nursemaid who would care for him until his death, said, “He always wanted things done by yesterday.” By 1925, he had planted 692 trees, or the entirety of the 75-acre plot of land in Puu Ualakaa that he signed on a 50-year lease from the Territorial Governor, Wallace Farrington.
Nuts from Van Tassel’s Hawaii Macadamia Nut Co. went from the farm on Round Top down through the flumes into trucks to his processing warehouse in Kakaako, where they were then sold as Van’s Macadamia Nuts, giving many Hawaii residents their first taste of the nuts without having to go to all the trouble of cracking through its hard shell themselves. It caught on. But due to the shade, rain, and wind typical for the leeward side of Tantalus, the sun-loving trees would eventually fail to produce as much as Van Tassel’s much bigger orchard at Keauhou, on the Big Island, where there were 7,000 trees. Although Van Tassel would decommission the farm at Round Top, he remained in his home at Nutridge until his death in 1947.
When Van Tassel commissioned architect Hart Wood to design his Puu Ualakaa farmhouse, Wood was already juggling a few high profile projects. It was the 1920s, the decade that saw the construction of the Hawaii Theatre, Aloha Tower, the Natatorium, the Honolulu Advertiser Building, the Alexander and Baldwin Building, Honolulu Hale, and the First Church of Christ Science—the latter three designed in part or fully by Wood. The experiments of Wood and his sometimes-partner C.W. Dickey would create the Hawaiian style of architecture: a blending of Polynesian, Asian, and western influences with how they relate to Hawaii’s natural elements. This was the beginning era of the Dickey roof, that double-pitched hipped roof that we see on so many buildings, including Wood’s Nutridge.
The First Church of Christ Science, on Punahou Street, is one of Wood’s most renowned buildings. Its long side lanai and double doorways influenced the designs in many houses of worship for decades to follow.
Don Hibbard, who nominated Nutridge for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (it was accepted in 1981), also wrote a few books on Hawaii architecture and one in particular about Hart Wood. He told us that, upon arriving in Hawaii in 1919, Wood was interested in “trying to figure out an appropriate regional style in Hawaii. From 1924 on, he worked really closely with mixing different forms—Spanish mission with colonial—or adding Asian influences to buildings. So in that time period you can see the regional influence in the way he laid out the Nutridge building. The lanai accesses all the bedrooms; essentially the lanai was the hallway.”