The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium opened on August 24, 1927, the birthday of Hawai‘i’s legendary Duke Kahanamoku. The Duke celebrated his birthday during the opening ceremony by diving in the pool for a memorial lap to a capacity crowd of 7000 cheering admirers that included the who’s who of Hawai‘i.
The Natatorium is a treasured memorial honoring those from Hawai‘i who died in the First World War. It was a storied venue for Olympic swimmers of the period and a popular gathering place for families, celebrity visitors, and hundreds of children like myself who spent hours swimming, jumping from the diving towers, or playing tag up and down the bleachers. It was a joyful place.
But, the late fifties and sixties were not kind years as city resources for maintenance slowed to a crawl. The last recorded budget approval for maintenance was in 1949. Following 30 years of neglect it closed in 1979 and was politically abandoned to further deterioration. So, it sat and crumbled.
In 1986, while serving as chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Ocean and Marine Resources, I met Joan Sheeran, president of the then fledgling Friends of the Natatorium. Joan was lobbying the legislature to fund the planning and design of a fully restored Natatorium. While I was immediately captured, I expected a steep climb to secure the substantial amount of funding it would take. Meanwhile, Joan had also reached out to Maui Senator Mamoru Yamasaki who chaired the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. She convinced him to support the idea and my mood shifted from cautious optimism to strong possibility. We then got a huge boost when William Paty, decorated veteran of World War II, who was Director of the Board of Land and Natural Resources weighed in with his support, which then drew Governor John Waihee into the yes column.
The result was a $1.8 million legislative appropriation to plan and design a full restoration. To our delight Mayor Jeremy Harris jumped in with both feet and got the City Council to budget approximately $15 million for the project. The city then completed the first phase, restoring the façade and bleacher sections. Things were moving along with great anticipation.
Then it all came to a halt when Mayor Mufi Hanneman, who succeeded Harris, surprised everyone by not only halting the restoration but stripping the city budget of all restoration funds. More egregiously, a city task force convened to consider options to restoration, after a contentious set of hearings, officially recommended demolition. So, after 90 years, fifteen Mayors, and sixteen Governors, the War Memorial continues to crumble.
The idea of demolishing the Natatorium ranks up there with the attempts to demolish Iolani Palace and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
But, a glimmer of hope surfaced over the holidays when Mayor Kirk Caldwell seemed to signal that the restoration scenario may be back on the table. I think the Mayor is inclined to do the right thing and weigh in on the side of public morality, preserving community history, and keeping our promise to continue honoring those who served in the Great War.
The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places and has been declared a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is the last of the great historic treasures of the Waikiki shoreline.
And, as for Joan Sheeran, the first president of the Friends of the Natatorium, who walked into my office in 1986 and brought this to my attention…we will be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary on January 11.