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A Native Son Architect for the Hawaiian House

A biography of the designer of Hawai‘i’s liveable plantation style homes

Look around. See all the aging single-wall-construction houses that fill the flats, valleys and older ridges of Oahu–with their canec ceilings made of pressed refuse from the sugar fields, with their screened sliding windows, miniscule bedrooms and overhanging eaves. Appreciate their “no-need” modesty and minimalism, the way they make simple wooden peace with the sun, the tradewinds and the rain.

The Bishop Estate developed 367 such houses in the ‘Aina Koa subdivision in East Honolulu in 1954. Tucked mauka of Kalanianaole Highway, up Kapakahi valley at Waialae, the low-cost suburb was intended to ease the housing shortage for war veterans. ‘Aina Koa means Land of the Warrior. Fifty-seven years later, most of the three-bedroom homes in the quiet yet convenient neighborhood have survived the termites with minor remodeling and embellishment–and several coats of paint. Many are inhabited by later generations of the same families who bought them (fee simple, using VA loans) when they were new.

The designer of ‘Aina Koa’s homes was Hilo-born, Kamehameha-schooled and Harvard-trained architect Ted Vierra, the subject of a just-published illustrated monograph called Always Remember You Are Hawaiian, A Biography of Theodore A. Vierra, His Life and Architectural Career: 1902 -1987. Self-published by Honolulu researcher and writer Fran Dieudonne and available in local bookstores in mid-November, the book celebrates the Portuguese/Scottish/Hawaiian architect’s remarkable 20th-century story, a story that might easily have been forgotten.

According to Dieudonne, Vierra is (or should be) remembered because of his modernist airports: the towering, jet-age Honolulu International Airport (1962) and the 1950s iterations of neighbor island airports at Hilo, Kahului, Hoolehua and Kamuela, all of them styled like airy ranch houses with lots of glass and lava-rock detailing. The terminal at Kamuela was famous for its fireplace.

Other big Vierra projects mentioned by Dieudonne include the landmark “Dream City” subdivision at Kahului (1950), the great old Hilo Field House (1955), several suburban tracts at Kailua and Kaneohe, and a miscellany of hotel additions, office buildings, churches and schools, including Radford High School (1957) and eight of the big, dignified buildings (dorms, classrooms, offices and a gym, built between 1957 and 1965) at Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus. For 20 years from 1950 to 1970, he maintained his own office.

A more lasting legacy than his public buildings might be Vierra’s humane and unpretentious vision for a domestic architecture in Hawaii, as embodied in the collective serenity of his ‘Aina Koa subdivision and the horizontal spaciousness of his Kuulei Tract (1952) in Kailua. Viewed as a whole, Vierra’s work represents a bonafide vernacular architecture, a local architecture–indeed, a Hawaiian architecture. Whatever it’s called, for kamaaina, it’s the beau ideal of home.

As with many things in Hawaii, Vierra’s ideas about human shelter in the tropics were honed on the plantations: After winning a scholarship and getting a graduate degree in architecture from Harvard, Vierra worked on the mainland for a few years then was hired by the all-powerful Hawaii Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) in 1935 to work in its architectural office. Within two years he was running the office and spent the late 1930s and 1940s figuring out how best to improve living conditions for the Territory of Hawaii’s tens of thousands of plantation workers. “From barracks to family homes,” is how one historian described HSPA’s modernization effort, during which Vierra incorporated more windows, bigger porches, toilets, showers, and laundry machines into what had been basic cabin plans. Most were wooden, but some used concrete slab floors, hollow-tile walls and canec partitions. “We treated every job individually,” Vierra said in a 1982 interview, “and took into consideration the views, winds, floor plan and convenience of the house for the employees.” He also designed plantation hospitals, gymnasiums, stores and offices. Finally, there were 32 plantations with buildings sprung from Vierra plans, according to Dieudonne. Clearly, Vierra’s ideas seeped into the very DNA of generations of Hawaii’s people.

With her energy and dedicated research, Dieudonne has done Hawaii a great service by rescuing a native son architect from the dustbin of history. Now 86, she says she first became interested in Vierra when she lived next door to him in Manoa nearly 30 years ago. Her book never speculates and never assumes. Nor does she draw aesthetic conclusions but simply presents as much factual information on her subject as she could find using archives, clippings, Vierra family records, and, especially, the transcript of a comprehensive 1982 interview with Vierra conducted by the American Institute of Architects. There are gaps and rough patches that an editor might have filled in or paved over. Some projects she mentions in passing remain tantalizing if unresolved puzzles and await further research.

Dieudonne tells us that Vierra’s mother, nee Catherine Waikulani McPherson, had told her son, “Always remember you are Hawaiian.” As Vierra himself observed in 1951, “An architect not only has the opportunity to conduct a business, but also has a chance to serve his fellow man by producing good homes at prices within reach of people of moderate means. Obtaining these results … is one of the great pleasures to be obtained from the practice of architecture.”

And what could be more Hawaiian than that?