Natatorium: time for the pool to go

Honolulu Advertiser
EDITORIAL

The one thing that can be said with certainty about the Waikiki Natatorium is that no one will be happy with the ultimate solution to this aging, crumbling war memorial.

There are those who would see the Natatorium restored to its 1927 glory as a memorial to those who served in World War I and as a nod to Hawai’i’s impressive aquatic history.

There are those who say the Natatorium has served its time, and the best thing to do is tear it down and restore the beach to its natural condition, as much as that is possible.

The third option would be to maintain the facade of the Natatorium, which is indeed the physical face of the memorial for those who approach from land, while returning to the sea the crumbling pool and other oceanfront facilities.

That third option appears to make the most sense. Efforts to come up with a common-sense solution have, unhappily, been hampered by state-city conflict, delays on rule-making, environmental assessments and the like. And while officials dithered, the structure continued to deteriorate.

There has been some progress. The facade has been restored, and new restrooms and other facilities have been installed.

But continued structural damage to the pool and surrounding structures makes it increasingly difficult to conclude the entire facility can be saved.

Now, there’s a proposal to spend some $6 million not to restore the pool but simply to stop the process of deterioration under way. Getting to the point where the pool is once again safe for swimming would cost millions more and would pose substantial engineering challenges.

There is no wrong and no right in this matter. Surely we would wish to preserve the Natatorium as originally built in deference to those it was meant to honor.

But it is equally clear that those who are honored by the Natatorium would not accept pouring good money after bad in an effort to save that which may not be salvageable.

We have long argued that the best of a bad situation would be to preserve the memorial arch that is the face of the Natatorium as one approaches the beach. Beyond that, options include filling in the one-time swimming pool as a beachfront volleyball venue or — perhaps most sensibly — restoring the beach to its original condition, including the construction of new seawalls to protect the facade and adjoining Kaimana Beach.

That would be a form of “adaptive reuse,” a concept often used to preserve historic structures once their original purpose has been lost.

Since the Natatorium was erected, scores of swimming pools have been built in Hawai’i, many of Olympic quality. The need for venues where people can swim with dreams of matching the late, great Duke Kahanamoku has been met.

We now recognize that every inch of beachfront is precious. Why not restore the beachfront there, where every visitor will pass first through an archway that reminds us of the sacrifices of those who fought and died to protect the freedoms we now enjoy?