Honolulu studies work on crumbling memorial

Honolulu Advertiser
By Alyssa S. Navares
Advertiser Staff Writer

The natatorium, increasingly decrepit behind its recently restored facade, is closed to the public but is used as a base for ocean safety officers.

The natatorium, increasingly decrepit behind its recently restored facade, is closed to the public but is used as a base for ocean safety officers.
RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

NATATORIUM TIME LINE

1927 — Built to honor 101 Hawai’i World War I veterans. Also this year, the site hosts a national outdoor swimming championship event and became a popular recreational spot with long lines to jump from the 36-foot-high platform and to play volleyball.

1940s — Army uses pool to train for World War II.

1950s and ’60s — O’ahu fifth-grade public school students participate in swimming program at salt-water pool.

1980 — Closed to the public because of deteriorating conditions.

1999 — Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris initiates plans to restore landmark.

2001 — City finishes fixing facade, bleachers and public restrooms.

2004 — Part of deck collapses. City begins emergency repairs.

2005 — Mayor Mufi Hannemann takes office, halts repair work. He launches engineering studies exploring alternative uses for the site.

2007 — Army Corps of Engineers begins studies assessing the condition of shoreline. Wil Chee-Planning Inc. plans to use those findings as it compiles recommendations for City Hall regarding the natatorium’s future.

The city is gearing up to patch the most glaring structural decay at the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, as studies aim to determine the future of the 80-year-old landmark.

“The natatorium is gradually deteriorating, and it’s difficult to predict how much longer it can maintain its present condition,” said city project manager Terry Hildebrand.

City officials three years ago confirmed that the ocean-fed pool and its underlying structure have extensive corrosion and cracking. One report concluded that the entire structure could eventually collapse if the damage is left unchecked.

Hildebrand said the city plans to check on the matter this summer through a four-month project that is expected to include a site survey and various minor repairs. He has submitted a proposal for the project, which will cost $40,000 to $50,000, to the city Department of Budget and Fiscal Services and expects feedback within a few weeks.

The project — an amendment to a standing contract with consultant firm Wil Chee-Planning Inc. — also is scheduled to produce recommendations for the World War I memorial’s future, which could range from full restoration to scrapping everything except the site’s distinctive Beaux Arts arch.

The Army Corps of Engineers this month began a yearlong $300,000 study of shoreline conditions between Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. Its findings will be factored into the project’s recommendations.

Crumbling concrete has kept the natatorium closed since 1980. Rusted iron gates and wooden boards block public access, but four concrete eagles peering down from atop the natatorium’s grand arch offer a symbol of the site’s past.

A nonprofit citizen group, Friends of the Natatorium, has pushed for years to see the memorial restored to its original glory. Members hope to bring back a learn-to-swim program there, while using proceeds from a snack bar and gift shop for maintenance.

Peter Apo, spokesman for the group, said his chief concern is that the site continues to fall apart. “If we drag out this natatorium situation too much longer, it will be demolished by our neglect,” Apo said.

Walter Burgow, an 85-year-old World War II veteran who sat with friends in front of the structure last week, agreed.

“If the city doesn’t do something soon, everyone will forget about what the memorial really stands for,” Burgow said. “This place is how I remember my fellow brothers who never came back from war.”

While growing up in Kalihi, Burgow said, he would take the bus to the natatorium, where he learned to swim in the 100-meter saltwater pool and enjoyed diving off the two-level towers. Built in the 1920s — during a national craze for natural-water swimming — the natatorium also attracted top-notch swimmers, such as Buster Crabbe and Duke Kahanamoku. The Army used it as a training site during World War II.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann does not want to restore the pool, according to city spokesman Bill Brennan. But depending on study results, leaving the arch as a tribute to veterans and expanding the beach area are possibilities for the site.

Former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris in 1999 launched an $11.5 million project to renovate the structure and to fix the cracks in its swimming pool. The first phase, which was completed a year later, included fixing the arch and facades. But legal obstacles, including a court ruling that required the city to obtain permits to renovate the swimming pool, halted the second phase of work.

In 2004, a collapse of a portion of the site’s deck prompted emergency repairs. Hannemann shelved the $6.1 million repair effort after taking office in January 2005, saying the city needed to focus on more critical services, such as repairing roads and sewers.

The city’s proposed minor repairs project, which could start in August, focuses on the structural integrity of natatorium areas on the ocean side, including the pool and deck. It also is expected to include a careful look at the decorative arch and concrete bleachers. Two engineers and advisers from Wil Chee-Planning will survey the area.

“We are primarily preparing ourselves for an emergency and don’t want to be caught by surprise,” Hildebrand said.

Upon approval from the city’s Budget Department, the project proposal will be submitted to the state Historic Preservation Division and the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. Both will make recommendations before work can get under way.

Susan Tasaki, architecture branch chief of the state Historic Preservation Division, said her office strives to preserve landmarks from earlier times.

“We would support any kind of plans to make sure no one gets hurt and the structure isn’t forgotten,” Tasaki said.