Cover Story

Image: photo by Pan pacific press bureau courtesy of hawai‘i state archives

The Natatorium faces demolition. Again.


Cover image for May 20, 2009

When people say the debate over the Waikiki Natatorium has been raging their entire lives, they’re not exaggerating. Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the 82-year-old World War I memorial’s closure, and the tug-of-war over whether to demolish it has raged for even longer than that. Now the race is on again. Mayor Mufi Hannemann acknowledged in March that the City is “seriously considering” demolition, and as the City finalizes the creation of a task force that will work to seal the Natatorium’s fate, it’s becoming clear that officials aren’t seriously considering anything else.

Watch the sun dip into the ocean from Kaimana Beach and 1927 hangs in the air. It feels timeless partly because many of those who frequent Kaimana have been spending weekends in the sandy shadow of the Natatorium for as long as they can remember. The memorial serves almost as a shield–it blocks a view of the blinking lights from clusters of towering Waikiki hotels. And despite its popularity, Kaimana manages to feel calm, removed from the tourism epicenter that creeps up the coast.

Nearly a century ago, before that beach existed and on the late summer night when Honolulu celebrated the Natatorium’s opening, the atmosphere was anything but quiet.

A Star-Bulletin reporter described “the purr of automobiles–the penetrating odor of gasoline–long serpents of light on every road” as thousands descended on the site. Crowds walked the grounds, buying hot dogs and cold soda water from vendors. Boys shimmied up trees and nestled among the tallest fronds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacular pool.

The Natatorium was alive.

Today, hints of green patina have started to appear on the plaque that hangs outside the padlocked entrance to the Natatorium. The weathering tribute reads “Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium Restoration” and lists the names of City officials–including then-Councilmember Mufi Hannemann–and others who enabled the Natatorium’s restoration in 2000.

Fifteen separate permits were secured and an environmental impact statement approved for that project, which was already underway when Kaimana Beach Coalition, a group that has long pushed for demolition of the world’s largest outdoor salt water natatorium, mobilized against it, citing safety concerns. The Coalition quickly found an ally in Hannemann, by then a candidate for mayor.

“Mufi made a campaign promise at our rally that he would make it a beach,” said Kaimana Beach Coalition founder Rick Bernstein. “He said that to 450 people right before the election.”

Hannemann scrapped the multimillion-dollar repair project on his first full day in office, citing a 2004 pool deck collapse that required emergency maintenance and saying the money could be better used elsewhere.

The race to raze is on

The mayor, who declined to comment for this story, is now pushing for the memorial’s destruction–which recent developments suggest is quietly in progress, if not imminent. City officials are in the final stages of convening a task force to review a City-commissioned study that only explores post-demolition concepts for the site. The study, conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assesses seven plans for how to best convert the Natatorium site into a beach. Congress mandates that the Corps must participate in any development of Waikiki beaches, and the City’s decision to work with them on the beach development study suggests a first step toward clearing permitting hurdles for demolition.

City officials insist they’re exploring all options for the Natatorium’s future and are also waiting for the results of a broader study by consulting group Wil Chee Planning & Environmental, but company representatives are tight-lipped about the nature of their study, including whether restoration is even being explored, and City officials claim they don’t know the specifics of the project.

And while Collins Lam, deputy director of the Department of Design and Construction told the Weekly last week that his department hadn’t even decided who to invite to the 12–15 member task force on the memorial’s future and that no one had yet been asked, Kaimana Beach Coalition founder Bernstein says he received a personal phone call from Lam inviting him to join the group “weeks ago.”

Not everyone concerned about the Natatorium’s future has been so lucky. Preservation advocate and Friends of the Natatorium board member Donna L. Ching said that the Friends, along with the Oahu Veterans Center, Kapiolani Park Preservation Society and Historic Hawaii foundation sent a formal letter requesting to join the task force more than a month ago and never heard back from Lam. After the Weekly called Lam asking about the task force, Friends of the Natatorium, Oahu Veterans and the Historic Hawaii Foundation received formal invitations from the mayor, post-marked Friday, timing that Ching calls “suspicious.”

The task force’s first meeting is scheduled for May 28. Among the concepts from the Army Corps study that it will review are several proposals for extending Kaimana Beach (referred to in the study by its official name, Sans Souci Beach). Yet the Corps report points out that without new underwater construction, the removal of Natatorium walls makes the threat of Kaimana Beach’s erosion “significant.” A 1984 assessment of the shoreline by the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation also found that “the Diamond Head seawall is currently stabilizing Sans Souci Beach, without it Sans Souci would eventually dissipate.”

It’s a curious wrinkle in the “save Kaimana” argument–there was no beach at Sans Souci before the memorial was erected, and if the Natatorium goes, the beach is likely to go with it. The recent Corps study suggests that such an outcome could be avoided, the most stable option requiring “significant construction on the reef outside the Natatorium footprint.”

“The only reason Kaimana Beach is there is because of the seawalls of the Natatorium,” said Ed Pskowski, managing principle at Leo A. Daly, the architecture firm that the City hired as the consultant for the most recent restoration project. “If you remove those, the beach will disappear in one cycle. That’s one winter.”

Saving face

Those who are sick of an unused structure taking up a stretch of prime shoreline say that tearing down the memorial is actually a form of saving it. The site, they point out, is dangerous–the pool deck is collapsed in areas, concrete has spalled to within an inch of rusted metal around the pool and on the bleachers, which were restored just seven years ago.

Bernstein and others who want to see the Natatorium turned into a beach say the memorial itself could be demolished but the grandiose 100-ton archway preserved.

“I don’t see it as the elimination of a monument, I see it as the recreation of a monument from dysfunction to function,” said Bernstein. “There’s something called adaptive re-usage. When a memorial site becomes dysfunctional and dangerous then it’s time to create the memorial in a way that serves the purpose and the intent of the memorial makers.”

“Bogus,” said Brian Turner, a law fellow with the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He and other preservationists argue that the longtime closure of the pool has confused people into thinking that the Beaux Arts style arch is the memorial, when it’s actually just an entryway–albeit a beautiful one.

“The whole purpose of this memorial is to be a natatorium,” Turner said. “It’s destroying the feature that makes it what it is in the name of preservation. We don’t understand the zeal to which people have the need to get rid of this.”

Cultural debate aside, engineers say preservation of the 200,000-pound arches standing alone–which would have to be relocated under beach expansion proposals–may be impossible due to the weight, age and the nature of its hollow concrete construction.

“Without the Natatorium, the arches would wash away,” said Pskowski. “There is this concept that we could just move the arches but they are very fragile. They literally cannot be moved.”

A crumbing world stage

The deep desire to drive people away from the Natatorium is in many ways a product of decades of tourism expansion and an island ever divided by class. It lies in stark contrast to the Honolulu in which the memorial was built.

In 1921, when it came to conceptualizing the design for the war memorial, territorial leaders looked to Paris for inspiration. They wanted Honolulu to be the center of the world. And in its golden era, the Natatorium–which hosted free swim lessons–was the center of thousands of children’s lives. But even in its prime, the memorial was neglected.

In the early 1930s, City officials refused to provide funding for maintenance since the property technically rested on territorial grounds. Two decades passed before management of the Natatorium was transferred to the City, and by then, the City didn’t want it. Rumors swirled that the Natatorium would close. At one point, the memorial’s maintenance crew opted to work without pay so that it could stay open. In 1949, the City spent $80,000 on a restoration but by 1963, after the Natatorium failed several building inspections, city officials–including Mayor Neal Blaisdell–recommended demolition in support of beach widening.

Historic preservationists stopped the beach initiative in 1972, and after Natatorium closed in 1979, a 1984 study commissioned by the Department of Parks and Recreation explicitly stated what has been the memorial’s fundamental problem all along: “In general, because of complex layering of governmental control involving both the state and the city, the Natatorium continued to deteriorate through neglect.”

The “no” boys

Bernstein, who calls the Natatorium “rotten to the core,” said he founded the Kaimana Beach Coalition some 25 years ago when he was just a “hippie with long hair.” He helped establish a protocol for how to react to oil spills and successfully fought a number of corporations that were engaged in environmentally unsafe practices. After former Mayor Jeremy Harris announced the restoration initiative for the Natatorium, Bernstein said someone from one of the preservation groups taunted him, saying that the Natatorium would be saved and there was nothing he could do about it.

“I went down to the Natatorium where Jeremy Harris was having a press conference and we almost got into a fist-fight,” he remembers. “I said, ‘you mess with this beach and I am going to bring down fire and hell,’ and, nose-to-nose, Jeremy said ‘Well, bring it on.’ So I did.”

Bernstein said Harris was planning to commercialize the structure with entertainment that would attract thousands of visitors to the area each day.

“Our agenda is to keep Kaimana Beach free from commercialization, period,” he said. “Those bleachers seat 2,500 people. And do you know how hard it is to clean a pool the size of a football field? You’d have to have scuba divers down there scrubbing it because there aren’t poles long enough to reach the bottom.”

The Kaimana Beach Coalition stopped the restoration by demanding the establishment of salt-water pool standards from the Department of Health. The regulations that were crafted were such that the only enclosed salt-water swimming venue on the island that wasn’t granted an exemption of some kind was the Natatorium.

“The other pools are exempt from our regulations for a number of reasons,” said Rex Mitsunaga, chief of the sanitation branch at the Department of Health, who took the position after the rules were implemented. “The Kahala Hotel has an exemption because there are marine animals in the pool. The Hilton Hawaiian…swimming area was created as an alteration of a natural shoreline, so they’re exempt. It’s not that the Natatorium is singled out.”

But others say the regulations were worded to destroy the Natatorium.

“Frankly, in our society, it only takes one person with one lawyer to stop whatever they want,” said Pskowski.

A monumental challenge

Aerial view of Waikiki Natatorium

Arial view of Waikiki Natatorium
Hawaii State Archives

To be sure, restoration would cost money. Indeed, the pool–even when it was fully functional–doesn’t circulate water as it was intended. The mechanisms through which water flows between the pool and ocean clog with sand. The restoration at the start of the decade would have addressed this, but the project was stopped before anything could be done.

Yet while proponents for demolition say that tearing down the memorial would be far less expensive than restoring it, the cost of projects like removing an incredible amount of viscous muck that has settled at the bottom of the pool after decades of neglect–along with a long list of other demolition-related tasks–aren’t factored into cost projections for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study. But Kaimana Beach Coalition members say that, once the beach plan is complete, the financial burden of maintaining the site is far lighter than the upkeep the Natatorium would require.

The memorial’s location also presents obstacles in every direction. The Natatorium sits on state-owned property directly on the Waikiki shoreline, is also part of Kapiolani Park and is listed on the state and national registries for historic landmarks, which means that for demolition plans to move forward, more than a dozen permits would be required.

Yet historic designations offer less protection than one might expect.

“Being on the historic register doesn’t preserve things,” said Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Nancy McMahon. “It just creates a process you have to go through. Some things, you can’t stop.”

And those who want a bigger beach–and access to a now-blocked swimming channel–say they aren’t going to stop until the Natatorium is demolished.

“I’m very adamant,” said Bernstein. “I think the plan that is developed [by the taskforce] is going to be the plan no matter what. And it’s bullshit for anyone to say they liked swimming in there because they didn’t.”

To Ed “Smitty” Smith, who grew up on Oahu and now lives on Maui, these are fighting words.

“I got smoke all around my ears about this,” said Smith, who dreams of a restored Natatorium outfitted with wheelchair access for veterans in swimming rehabilitation programs. “I was raised at the Natatorium. After the planes of Japan flew over us, shooting at us, everything changed. The war effort destroyed families in a lot of ways because the adults focused on the war. If you found the Natatorium, you were safe. From every family–Portuguese, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino–all of those kids were raised by the Natatorium and no one else. It was there that you learned marine biology, you learned how to fish, you learned companionship. We never learned ABCs, we learned pidgin English. We learned how to share with each other. We gathered under a tree and had ‘opihi, ate it raw, and there was always some for everyone. It was beautiful.”

A living memorial

On that summer night in 1927, the Natatorium was alive. The bleachers were packed with thousands of people. Gov. Wallace Farrington welcomed the crowd, and called the memorial a gift to Hawaii’s youth. A band played a waltz as swimmers glided through the salt water. But the first one to plunge into the pool was swimming sensation and Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku, who was celebrating his 37th birthday. A Star-Bulletin reporter described that inaugural swim in the newspaper the next day.

“Duke in the water–flashing through the water–Duke a flaying, kicking object just below the surface–the water seeming to move–not he–water curling in foam from his beating palms. The same old Duke–the same, easy, slithering stroke, no effort–no panting breath–just perfect swimming. The crowd bellows and cheers and shrieks as the swimmer rises dripping from the pool.”

The Kaimana Beach Coalition says its aim is to serve local people, and to protect the area from overuse. Smitty Smith remembers an era when many more people frequented the now-neglected memorial, and he remembers those days fondly. For him, it is local people who stand to lose the most if the Natatorium isn’t restored.

“Nobody has a right to tear that down. To take that experience away…it’s wrong.”

Found on YouTube

The importance of historic preservation

Kiersten Faulkner the on how Historic Preservation is not about Buildings, but about remembering and preserving a way of life. This speech was given at the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial Service on Sunday, May 28, 2008.

Historic home movies

This home movie shot in 1939 has some great footage of hula dancing at the Natorium (about the 43 second mark).

Congressman Neil Abercrombie remembers the Natatorium

A brief Q&A on May 25, 2008 at the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial service at Sans Souci (Kaimana) Beach.