Natatorium debate at crucial junction

Honolulu Advertiser
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

It may be now or never for the crumbling War Memorial Natatorium in Waikiki.

The pool at the War Memorial Natatorium in Waikiki, seen here in a 1984 photo, was closed to the public in 1979 for safety reasons.
Advertiser library photo

The last major work at the natatorium in 1999 dealt only with the facade and added new restrooms. Both those who want the deteriorating facility torn down and those who want it fully restored agree that it is time the city did something with the site.
Advertiser library photos

Fences and warning signs keep people away from the natatorium. In its 77 years, the facility has seen few improvements or repairs.
Jeff Widener • The honolulu Advertiser

Behind locked gates, the natatorium has continued to deteriorate. The city has $7 million available for work but that may not be enough.
Jeff Widener • The honolulu Advertiser

Both those who want to see it restored to full glory and those who want it torn down completely say damage discovered recently in the 77-year-old memorial could be just the thing needed to bring the long, sad saga of the natatorium to a head.

“I think it’s going to force a decision either way,” said David Scott, executive director of the Historic Hawai’i Foundation.

City officials have ordered two separate engineering risk studies of the natatorium since the discovery of latest structural damage, a collapse of the deck fronting the saltwater swimming pool and its adjoining stands.

The collapse is the latest in a series of problems at the natatorium, which — except for the $4 million spent on work in recent years by the city — has seen few improvements since it was built in 1927 to honor World War I veterans from Hawai’i.

“It looks like the damage is accelerating,” said Tim Steinberger, director of the city Department of Design and Construction. “The seawall appears to be leaning, and the whole structure is tied together, so it’s real critical to understand what’s happening.”

The biggest fear is that the entire underlying structure of steel reinforcing bars and concrete — a fairly new technique at the time the natatorium was built — has disintegrated, leaving the football-field length pool, adjoining stands, and facade and archway vulnerable to collapse, said several people who have been involved in the decades-long fight over the monument.

“I don’t think any conclusions can be made until the engineering reports come in, but it’s very possible that the whole thing is no longer redeemable,” said Rick Bernstein of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, a loose-knit group of citizens who would like to see the complex torn down and replaced with a new beach and a repositioned veterans memorial.

Nancy Bannick, vice president of Friends of the Natatorium, has worked since the 1960s to see it saved and still hopes to preserve it.

“I don’t know what they’re discovering, but it’s a terrible crisis. Right now the big problem is to save it. If they don’t take steps pretty soon, the south swells are going to knock everything down someday,” she said

Problems since start

The natatorium was first proposed in 1921, when the territorial Legislature authorized $250,000 in bonds to pay for construction of what was supposed to be the first “living” war memorial in the United States.

Designed by San Francisco architect Louis Hobart in the Beaux Arts style, the natatorium — with its focus on swimming and recreation — was praised as a fitting tribute to one of the privileges of American society worth fighting for, the right to good health and wholesome recreation.

Opening ceremonies in 1927 assembled one of the greatest groups of swimmers ever seen, including Duke Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller and Olympic stars from Japan and South America.

Kahanamoku made the first swim, emerging at the end of the pool to a thunderous ovation from the thousands of people in the 13-level concrete bleachers.

“It was an unforgettable moment — the man who symbolized the Hawaiian people to the rest of the world opening a memorial whose design captured so well the character of territory and relations to the sea,” according to investigators who had the complex put on the state and national registers of historic places in 1973.

The natatorium’s decline began almost as soon as it was finished.

“Difficulties involved in maintaining a man-made structure in a marine environment were inherent in the original concept,” according to a 1984 report commissioned by the city.

The structure was required to resist the ravages of continual wave action and saltwater corrosion, but the structural details needed to stand up to that assault were never correctly implemented.

In the first 70 years after its opening, less than $100,000 was spent on its upkeep. Records show that maintenance became less and less efficient, with the job of natatorium superintendent awarded by the territorial government more on the basis of political loyalty than skill.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the natatorium was taken over by the Army and used for training purposes. Later, it remained a popular social and recreational center for many local people, but the pool was closed to the public for safety reasons in 1979. In the 1990s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the natatorium on its list of 11 most endangered historic sites in America.

Today, a chain-link fence surrounds the pool, but those who climb up on it can see holes, cracking and other signs of decay in nearly every part of the complex.

Beach memorial

In the 25 years since the pool was closed, seemingly everyone in Hawai’i has formed an opinion about what to do with it.

In Kapi’olani Park last week, though, there was near unanimous belief that it was time to put up or shut up: Either someone should spend the millions of dollars needed to restore the memorial, or else let it die a dignified death, said beachgoers, some of whom have been coming to the nearby Kaimana Beach and park area for decades.

Many said a new memorial should be built to honor the veterans while restoring the current site to its natural beach conditions.

“It’s a shame that it’s come to this, but if they can’t do nothing, then it’s time to let it go,” said Clyde Kanda, a Kane’ohe resident whose mother used to swim in the saltwater pool as a child.

“It shows no respect to have a memorial that is falling apart,” said 84-year-old Sylvia Wild, who survived the bombing of London as a teenager and whose husband, Stanley, was a U.S. Army officer who served in three wars before retiring to Hawai’i in the 1960s.

“He was a veteran, but he agreed that it would be better to restore the beach and move the memorial,” Wild said.

Preservationists, however, say that the memorial is an important part of Hawai’i history and should be saved, no matter what the cost.

“There are so few major important buildings from the territorial period that to lose any one at this point would be a tragedy,” said William Chapman, head of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Hawai’i.

Some have suggested removing the pool from the complex or even filling it in with sand to create beach volleyball courts. That would allow the facade, with its great arch and soaring eagle sculptures, to remain in place, supporters say.

Others, though, say the pool is an essential part of the project, both in terms of structural integrity and its worth as a historic monument.

“The pool protects what we’ve got,” Bannick said. “If the ocean is allowed to come in there, it will crush everything.”

Partial preservation

Chapman said tearing down just part of the complex should not be an option.

“It would be like saying save the Hawai’i Theatre by just keeping the facade. I can see somebody suggesting that we tear down the Moana Hotel but leave the portico,” he said.

Bannick and others have been arguing for years that the entire facility needs to be saved.

“The community should be ashamed of what we’ve let happen here,” she said. “The frustration is that we’ve slaved all these years and come up with all these ideas. Now we’ve got to finish the job.”

Lack of money

Getting the job done, however, may involve millions of dollars.

In 1998, the city earmarked $11 million for the full restoration of the natatorium, but only the facade was restored and new bathrooms built before a judge determined that the swimming pool required regulation by the state Health Department.

That left the city wondering how to proceed and left the natatorium itself in a preservation limbo, much like the crumbling water pumping station in Kaka’ako and Bishop Hall on the grounds of the Bishop Museum, both of which need structural repairs before they can be used again, Scott said.

“It’s pretty typical,” Chapman said. “The government drags its feet, drags its feet and finally it discovers the work is going to cost twice as much as anyone thought before.”

About $7 million of the 1998 natatorium money remains available for restoration work, but several people familiar with the project said the new damage may mean far more money would be needed to ever complete the job.

“It’s possible that the bleachers and the restrooms are sitting on nothing more than sand right now, with everything else eroded away,” Bernstein said. “The rust, corrosion, and spalling have been going on forever and ever, and now you probably can’t put everything back together again. To try would just be throwing good money after bad.”

Bernstein suggested that everybody with an interest in the natatorium could be satisfied with a plan that restores the beach, opens an offshore swimming channel, creates a volleyball stadium and restrooms in the adjacent park area and establishes new memorial structures for the veterans, including an impressive archway leading to the beach area.

“That wouldn’t be very expensive in the big picture, and everybody gets something that shows respect and dignity,” he said.

Others, though, think it’s important to preserve what’s there.

“We often judge a society on how well it takes care of its heritage,” Chapman said. “And right now we don’t come off very well on that ground.”

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or

Correction: Stanley Wild’s first name was wrong in a previous version of this story.