Swimming area and bleachers of the War Memorial Natatorium

photo by: Elyse Butler

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2017

Can Honolulu's War Memorial Natatorium Be Saved?

As I survey the deteriorating Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium on Oahu’s southern coast, the cracked and collapsing concrete surface surrounding the ocean-water swim basin threatens to give way at any moment. I’m reminded of this possibility by the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation staff members who’ve made time to escort me on my brief visit to the shuttered memorial. “Please step back, sir,” they refrain as I amble too near the unstable decking. Large areas of the natatorium’s deck have already failed, exposing twisted and rusty rebar. One false step and I might find myself literally swimming with the fishes.

Dedicated in 1927 as a World War I memorial, the natatorium was conceived as more than a place honoring citizens of the territory of Hawaii who volunteered for the war. “It was designed to be a living memorial where people would gather for recreation but also to remember those who sacrificed their lives for freedom,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation (HHF). Specifically, Hawaii’s Territorial Legislature stipulated that the memorial be dedicated to “the men and women of Hawaii who served during the Great War” and that it “include a swimming course at least 100 meters in length.”

During the 50-ish years the natatorium was open, it served not only as an important memorial, but also as the epicenter of Hawaii’s swimming and watersports heritage. “Starting on its opening day, when Olympic gold medalist and ‘father of modern surfing’ Duke Kahanamoku dove in to take the ceremonial first swim, the natatorium functioned to honor military service and the tradition of Hawaiian watersports,” says Brian Turner, a senior field officer and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “And then it evolved as a place where generations of families learned to swim.”

Today, the permanently closed memorial is one of only a few ocean-water natatoriums left in the world, and the only one of its kind in the United States. And despite rehabilitation funding that was approved in the late 1990s, this irreplaceable treasure remains threatened by demolition, slowly crumbling into the sea.

Kaimana Beach, the Natatorium, and Honolulu's skyline.

The City of Honolulu's current proposed solution for the natatorium, which sits deteriorating within view of Waikiki's upscale commercial district, is to demolish the swimming area and expand the neighboring beach.

Because the natatorium’s original design and engineering did not do enough to maximize water exchange, and because the concrete used for its construction was of much lower quality than that of today, its history has been marked by maintenance woes and demolition threats. In 1965, for example, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommended demolition to the mayor. Seven years later the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement also recommending demolition. These ideas were controversial, even unimaginable, for those who couldn’t fathom trashing a war memorial. In 1973, the governor and the State Board of Land and Natural Resources consented to the demolition, but later that year the Supreme Court of Hawaii decided that demolishing the natatorium would be illegal, citing Gov. Long’s 1951 executive order mandating use as a “Memorial Park and Natatorium.”

“Following annexation in 1898 there was great interest in establishing Hawaii as a crossroads between East and West.”

Kiersten Faulkner

By the end of the 1970s the memorial had been declared unsafe, and the swimming area and bleachers were indefinitely closed to the public. Over the next two decades the state and city debated responsibility and resource allocation for its restoration until a fully funded plan was rolled out in 1998. But that plan quickly derailed in 1999, when the Kaimana Beach Coalition filed suit against the City and County of Honolulu and the city’s Department of Health, urging the court to classify the natatorium as a “public swimming pool,” which would require it to be permitted by the Department of Health.

Meanwhile, the city had already started renovating the memorial, and restoration of the land-based bleachers and bathhouses was well underway. “We originally started a full restoration,” says Robert Kroning, director of the Department of Design and Construction for the City and County of Honolulu. “But the lawsuit around water quality and health concerns prevented us from refurbishing the pool.” The city was permitted to complete work on the bleachers and bathhouses, and spent nearly half of the $11.5 million set aside for restoration. “But the Department of Health took three years to promulgate saltwater pool rules,” says Kroning, “and by then a new administration had taken over and terminated the construction contract.” In 2005, the remaining appropriated funds had lapsed, and the restoration of the memorial was at a standstill.

The deteriorated concrete decking of the War Memorial Natatorium

photo by: Elyse Butler

Phase I of the memorial’s restoration included the concrete bleachers, but Phase II was halted by a lawsuit, and the decking around the swimming area has been deteriorating without maintenance for almost 40 years.

As a war memorial alone, the natatorium is certainly worth saving, but as HHF’s Faulkner says, “It represents more than a memorial. It’s a very layered place and tells an important story of the Hawaiian Islands.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation formally committed to saving the Waikiki Beach icon with National Treasure designation in 2014, acknowledging these layers of significance as a living memorial, hub of water recreation, and architectural treasure.

On their own, these layers are important enough, but taken together they epitomize the emergence of Hawaii’s international identity as “the crossroads of the Pacific.” It’s this dynamic between grand memorial and public amenity that cements the natatorium as a one-of-a-kind place. Joining with the local advocacy group Friends of the Natatorium, as well as the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Historic Hawaii Foundation, and the State Historic Preservation Division, the National Trust is championing a collaborative preservation plan with a goal of reopening the structure as a vibrant aquatic facility for future generations to enjoy.

Designed by nationally renowned architect Lewis Hobart, the natatorium features a grand Beaux-Arts archway leading to its ocean-water swim basin that pays tribute to Hawaii’s indigenous swimming traditions and its role in Olympic history. “Though reports about the speed of Hawaiian swimmers circulated internationally,” says the National Trust’s Brian Turner, “no one totally believed them until Duke Kahanamoku and the American team shocked the world at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. When he set records on his way to Olympic gold, he propelled the notion of Hawaii’s identity, and the memorial offered a unique opportunity to symbolize the importance of swimming to the culture.”

For Mo Radke, president of Friends of the Natatorium, the place is important through all its layers—but as a memorial, its significance is personal. A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, Radke says he joined the fight to save the natatorium because he felt compelled to help reopen and restore it as a community gathering place: “What does it say about us as a people when we disregard a memorial to military sacrifice?”

Turner echoes that sentiment, adding, “It is not about preserving every last detail, but reminding people that it was intended as a living memorial that would be open to everyone. Unlike most swimming pools of the time in the United States, the natatorium was never segregated. People of all races and economic classes could come together to swim or simply watch the sunset from the bleachers. It is significant as a memorial, but it is persuasive to save it as a recreational facility alone.”

Friends of the Natatorium members Jim Anderson, Frank Weight, Sonny Tanabe, and Mo Radke

photo by: Elyse Butler

City officials granted Friends of the Natatorium members Jim Anderson, Frank Weight, Sonny Tanabe, and Mo Radke temporary access to the natatorium's bleachers.

A unique touchstone for Hawaii’s territorial era, the natatorium sits at a nexus of two worlds, a reminder of the ancient and the modern. When one views the memorial structure from the ocean, Diamond Head, a 500,000-year-old extinct volcano, looms in the background, but up the coast, the new development of high-rise hotels and condos sprouts from Waikiki’s ribbon of sand. Recognized as an architectural landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the natatorium was constructed during a 1920s building boom, after the “Big Five” sugar companies established their footholds in Hawaii and the territory’s population soared. Along with a handful of other prominent structures that remain from the era, it represents a distinct moment in Hawaii’s history.

“The 1920s was a time of great change and turbulence,” says Faulkner. “Following annexation in 1898, there was great interest in establishing Hawaii as a crossroads between East and West.” Many of the major structures built in Honolulu during the ’20s were designed as monuments to Hawaii’s military and economic significance and often became symbolic of the territory’s stature. “As a representation of Hawaii’s growing global importance, Honolulu’s 1920s architecture was designed to reflect the classic democratic principles of the United States,” adds Faulkner.

“The result,” says Bill Chapman, director of the historic preservation program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “was that these buildings often mirrored architectural trends in the United States and Beaux-Arts designs by prominent mainland architects began to dominate the Honolulu landscape. By the end of World War II there were a lot of Beaux-Arts buildings in Honolulu, but today most of them are gone.”

At the same time, though, “a regional style was also beginning to emerge,” says Faulkner, “a morphing together of Mediterranean Revival and Asian influences with classical and regional forms.” Honolulu architect Glenn Mason agrees, mentioning the Alexander and Baldwin building (1929), the Honolulu Academy of Arts (1927, now the Honolulu Museum of Art), and the Royal Hawaiian hotel (1927, now a Historic Hotel of America) as examples.

“[These] designs consciously explored Hawaiian regionalism in a way that was never again matched,” he says. “This regionalism is about design, but it is also about scale. The buildings constructed during that era were usually no more than four or five stories high, and were designed for the tropical climate with lanais, an emphasis on cross ventilation, and casement windows.”

Garden courtyard at the Royal Hawaiian hotel

photo by: Elyse Butler

Like the natatorium, the 1927 Royal Hawaiian hotel embodies the spirit of the time when it was built, an era of growth and optimism.

The lanai at the Royal Hawaiian hotel

photo by: Elyse Butler

Designed in the Hawaiian Regional Style, the Royal Hawaiian includes features such as wide lanais that have become emblematic of the style.

After World War II, though, International Style and Modernist development dominated Honolulu. Of the buildings from the 1920s remaining in the city, some are Beaux-Arts, like the natatorium, or gestures toward this regional style. Among the handful of Beaux-Arts structures left, Laniakea (1927), the YWCA building designed by Julia Morgan (of Hearst Castle renown, remains a remarkably intact example, with original architecture and detailing that hasn’t been compromised by incompatible development or renovation.

The land-based part of the natatorium includes archways, concrete bleachers, and bathhouses with classical ornamentation such as friezes, pediments, statuary, and cornices. But it’s the ocean-based swimming area that’s been so difficult to maintain and most controversial to restore. While the Kaimana Beach Coalition advocates for demolishing the current memorial and replacing it with a beach, the coalition fighting for rehabilitation believes that the bleachers can be preserved and the swim basin re-engineered in a way that meets current safety criteria.

“The original pool design is not up to modern standards,” concedes the National Trust’s Brian Turner. “The holes designed for seawater exchange are too small to keep water quality safe. But while there are problems with the original design, tearing it down is not the solution. Instead, preservation is a methodology for observing the original intent as both a memorial and a place for people to swim.”

“The plans for rehabbing the natatorium will work, and it would be a wonderful facility.”

Bill Chapman

In the middle of this controversy is Honolulu’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), which is completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that analyzes alternatives for the natatorium’s future. The current preferred alternative, recommended in 2009 by a task force then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann had convened, is demolition. “The entry arch would be reconstructed,” says the DDC’s Kroning, “and the pool area would be reconceived as a memorial beach. But as part of the EIS process, the National Trust has been working with us to understand a variety of alternatives.” Four categories of solutions are currently under analysis: do nothing, complete a full restoration, begin demolition in accordance with the current preferred option, or preserve as much of the structure as possible with a redesigned swimming area that would not be considered a pool.

One thing all parties seem to agree on is that doing nothing is not an option. Letting the memorial continue to deteriorate indefinitely is unthinkable. Pragmatically, Kroning suggests that history has dictated demolition as the preferred option. The city tried to restore the site, got sued, and had to stop work until it could comply with the pool rules. “That is why we currently believe that recasting the memorial in a different way is the right solution,” he says. “But if there are other practical, cost-effective solutions that meet the criteria, we are open to that.”

The Honolulu Academy of Arts, designed in the Hawaiian Regional Style

photo by: Elyse Butler

Buildings such as the Honolulu Academy of Arts, designed in the regional style, blended Mediterranean Revival and Asian influences with classical and regional forms.

The National Trust, Historic Hawaii, Friends of the Natatorium, and others are hoping the solution they are proposing will be just that: practical and cost-effective, with a swimming area that can’t be defined as an enclosed pool. University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus of Ocean and Resources Engineering Hans Krock has been working on a design that would create a protected ocean swim basin. It would look like the original but wouldn’t enclose water the way a pool does.

Krock, who was born in Poland but has lived in Hawaii most of his life, is developing a concept by which underwater chevrons would break up wave energy and create a calm swimming environment. “Staggered rows of chevrons and new walls along the 100-meter-long ocean side of the swimming area would allow ocean wave energy to fully replace the water in the swim basin an estimated six times per day,” says Turner. As a result, water quality would match that of ambient coastal waters. Although the design is still being developed, the goal is to establish a budget of $35 million or less, an amount far smaller than the $69 million estimate Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell cited in 2013.

To ease any future operational burden the city might experience with a reopened natatorium, the Friends of the Natatorium group would consider transitioning its efforts from advocacy to operations. One solution, suggests Friends group president Radke, “could be a public-private partnership where we identify someone familiar with public programming for water activities. If the city is amenable to the idea, it would not have to assume the obligation of operation, but it could still be involved to ensure the facility continues to honor and memorialize World War I sacrifice and remains a benefit to locals.”

For Radke, the natatorium’s reopening has become a practical matter. After all, it’s a living memorial that should continue honoring war veterans as a public amenity. But for others, such as historic preservation professor Chapman, it’s a matter of civic virtue. “There is so little left of the early 20th century in Hawaii,” he says. “The plans for rehabbing the natatorium will work, and it would be a wonderful facility. How a society takes care of its past is a mark of how well it can deal with the present.”

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

Your charitable donation will support our work to save America's National Treasures.

Donate