Preserving Honolulu: An Interview with University of Hawaii’s William Chapman

william-chapman

University of Hawai’i Professor William Chapman has spent a lifetime working in historic preservation. A former Fulbright scholar and two time Fulbright Senior Specialist, he knows a thing or two about preserving urban history and architecture for future generations. Chapman currently serves on three international committees dedicated to preserving historical sites: History and Theory, Historic Towns and Urban Areas, and Vernacular Architecture. Since 2000, he has been a member of the UNESCO committee for Heritage Awards in Asia and the Pacific.  The Metropole sat down with Dr. Chapman to pick his brain on Honolulu history, preservation policy, and the city’s present and future.

How did you find your way to Hawai’i? What do you do at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa?

I was recruited, in a sense. Former Keeper of the National Register and Vice-President of the National Trust Bill Murtagh had begun a historic preservation program at the University of Hawai‘i in 1986. He was here on a part-time, one term a year basis, and the Department of American Studies, where it was housed, wanted a full-time director. I was teaching then at the University of Georgia and was active in international historic preservation through the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS). I was encouraged to apply for the job. This was in 1992. I started in the summer of 1993. I am now chair of my department but still direct our Graduate Certificate Program in Historic Preservation.

How would you describe your experience in creating the National Register Report? How did you balance planning, history, and anthropology into a document that will influence Honolulu urban policy?

The report was for a National Heritage Area focused on downtown Honolulu and the immediately surrounding area. I expanded the report to include the whole of the ancient ahupua‘a (the Hawai’ian land division). I was asked by the initiative’s leadership to write the report, based on my past work with the National Register and my experience in the preservation field. I had great help from a special Graduate Assistant we hired for the job, Geoff Mowrer, now a National Park Service employee on the island of Hawai‘i. I approached the report as a historian, bringing in some archaeological studies to cover some of Honolulu’s early years. I had written some material on the Urban Renewal Period in Honolulu and then began with the early period. Much of my writing and research was not included in the report for the Hawai’i Capital District Proposal since it would have gotten too long. The overall aim was to rethink Honolulu as an urban site, rather than just part of the consolidated government of Honolulu and Oahu. I also wanted to provide an alternative to the usual colonial histories of both Hawai’i and the city—to better understand Honolulu as a Hawai’ian city (at least in terms of its population and workforce) not simply as the creation of Euro-Americans. There is no doubt Honolulu was a response to early globalization and the beginnings of world trade, but the labor and “personality” of the place prior to 1900 was almost entirely “Hawai’ian.”

To what extent has the report made an impact in Honolulu’s development or plans for development?

So far, very little. The proposal came up against opposition in a number of quarters. Some influential owners in Chinatown did not want to be part of a National Park Service special area even if there was no regulatory component. I think the project failed to get the word out on what this might mean and most people perceived it as “yet another level of federal government interference.” This was true of some Hawai’ian leaders as well, many of which saw the effort as an encroachment on traditionally managed homestead lands in the upper part of the proposal area.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’ve read James L. Haley’s book on Hawai’i, Captive Paradise, in which he seems to suggest (and it’s possible I’m oversimplifying his argument) that Honolulu really didn’t become the true center of Hawai’i until after the whaling industry declined and sugar came on the scene in the latter part of the nineteenth century. How would you describe its development into Hawai’i’s urban/cultural/economic center?

The whaling industry kick-started the growth of the city largely through the marine chandler (supply) business. Parts of the city were devoted to the cultivation of sweet potatoes, a provision for many whaling ships. There were also ropeyards, blacksmiths, etc. The town was also a rest and relaxation area for visiting sailors and this poured quite a bit of money into the kingdom’s coffers. In 1809, King Kamehameha moved his court to Honolulu, to a site adjacent to old luakini heiau (sacrificial temple) of Pakaka from Waikiki, before returning to Hawai’i Island around 1812. By 1845, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i moved officially to Honolulu, where all functions of government operated.

This was obviously a response to the far greater economic importance of the harbor settlement over that of the old capital at Lahaina on Maui. Hawai’i continued to be an important site for the replenishment of ships’ stores and for refurbishment of ships into the 1850s and 1860s, when whaling began to decline. Sugar production, which expanded after the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 gave Hawai’i preferential tariff treatment, did in fact spark a minor boom in urban development—but this was still moderate. By the 1890s the Kingdom of Hawai’i was finding itself hard-pressed to meet its financial obligations and the Hawai’ian elite was over its head in debt. Even the overthrow in 1893 did not assure Western investors of the security of Hawai’i; only after the breakout of the Spanish American War in 1898 and the agreement to annex Hawai’i in 1900 did Hawai’i and Honolulu experience a surge in construction and urban development.

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Main St., Honolulu – Fancy goods, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of my impressions of Honolulu, and some of this might be due to my own time in San Diego and Los Angeles, was that architecturally it felt like Southern California in many ways. From the report, prior to WWII there was some influence by California-based architects such as C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan. How did this influence the city architecturally prior to 1945?

Honolulu indeed feels much like a Southern California town and has much in common with greater Los Angeles. The history of tract development is similar as are many of the architectural styles and the building types, notably one-story bungalows. Many of the architects working in Hawai’i moved back and forth to California, though the main cultural connection during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was San Francisco, not LA. C.W. Dickey is a case in point. He had local connections but spent much of his career in California, where he was born (Alameda) and educated (Oakland). He eventually got his architecture degree from MIT, but was very much a “westerner.”

Hart Wood, Dickey’s sometimes rival and sometimes collaborator, also spent time in both Denver and Oakland (though he was originally from Philadelphia) and had worked on the Stanford campus. He moved to Hawai’i in 1919. Probably the most similar thing about Hawai’i and California was the range of building styles. Craftsman, Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission, and Georgian Revival were all popular forms in Hawai’i as they were on the West Coast. The biggest difference was the relative quality of materials; everything had to be imported to Hawai’i so there were a number of materials economies practiced in the islands, notably single wall and double board construction. This technology, which has a parallel in California for farm buildings, especially, was widely employed in Hawai’i’s many planation camps. These types of simplified generic buildings found wide acceptance in the modest Honolulu suburbs as well. Hawai’i and LA shared a dependence on a streetcar system, which moved workers and clerks from their small houses to the central business district. The city also saw the emergence of separate satellite communities such as Kaimuki and Kapahulu, in response to the streetcar suburbs. As a cost savings, many areas did not have sidewalks and nearly all telephone and electrical wiring was strung above ground, as it is today outside of the very core of the urban district.

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Street looking towards hills, Honolulu, no date, Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I also wonder about Honolulu’s post World War II architecture. It seems to also share similarities with Southern California, but perhaps in a different way. For example, postwar California launched the ranch house, subdivisions, and an explosion in military spending and infrastructure, which in turn facilitated the expansion of housing, industry, and economic development. Did something similar occur in Honolulu because, at least superficially, there seem to be some parallels.

Actually, much of this was true for Hawai’i too in the postwar era. However, because of the scarcity of land Honolulu quickly accepted high-rise construction as an alternative to suburban sprawl. This occurred most noticeably in the resort area of Waikiki, but also downtown and in many former single-family home areas such as Makiki. The city applied zoning standards only in the mid 1960s, allowing for sporadic high-rise development in many former single-family areas as well. The first large apartment building was the Rosalei in Waikiki, built in 1956. Before that buildings were limited by the height of the longest fire truck ladder, to eight stories. There were postwar suburbs such as Hawai’i Kai, Aina Haina, and Waialai Iki, which—at least in Aina Haina—included houses by the New York-based Levitt Company and local companies such as Hicks Homes. Henry Kaiser applied the efficiencies learned in his industrial suburbs in Seattle during the war to his new development in East Honolulu. Finally, the construction of Hawai’i’s own “Interstate Highway,” the H-1, helped unify the various small commercial areas and encouraged the construction of large shopping centers. These included the Waialae Center (now Kahala Mall) built in the late 1950s, the Kaimuki Center (now Market City) and especially the megamall Ala Moana, built in 1959. The malls, in turn led to the decline of downtown Honolulu as a shopping and entertainment area, much as happened in LA.

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Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 10, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Many American cities exhibit significant economic, racial, and ethnic diversity, but Honolulu must exceed most mainland metropolitan areas. How does this differentiate the city—politically, architecturally, socially—from its counterparts in North America?

As you know, Honolulu was the center of a great agricultural enterprise beginning in the 1870s but really taking off in the early twentieth century. The sugar and pineapple industries required labor. Immigrant contract labor began under the reign of King Kalākaua (reigned 1874-1891). The Chinese had been coming to Hawai’i since the mid 1850s, helping, in fact, to develop the incipient sugar industry. With passage of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875, Kalakaua knew he needed a fresh source of labor. This would be Japan. Beginning in 1868 before Kalākaua’s reign but expanding after 1881 following an agreement with the Emperor of Japan, thousands of Japanese single men—and later families and single women—immigrated to Hawai‘i. Many planned to stay just through their contract, but then found themselves either unprepared economically or bound to responsibilities and attachments in Hawai‘i. Many of the Japanese came from the southern island, where they had eked out a living as farmers. Others came from the Japanese dependency of Okinawa. Koreans soon joined the mix, expedited by the fact Korea was under Japanese control at the time.

Soon, Europeans from places as far away as Sweden and Scotland joined the Japanese. Many of these came as technicians. Farmland on Hawai‘i Island was offered at favorable terms to entice settlers from places such as Portugal. In 1898, following a major storm in Puerto Rico, a large number of Puerto Rican families emigrated. With the defeat of the Spanish and new ties to the Philippines, there was a concurrent influx of Filipino workers after 1900. All of these ethnic groups began to occupy Honolulu as well. As a result there was a Chinatown, a Japan-town and eventually businesses operated by Filipinos. Never truly a “melting pot,” Honolulu and the rest of the Hawai’ian Islands enjoyed an ethnic balance that many sociologists saw as enviable. Army reports and the organization of sugar labor indicate strong racial “profiling.” “The Japanese were industrious but not inventive; the Chinese clever but were inscrutable; Hawai’ians were lazy,” and so on. The Hawai’i Guard, the territory’s version of a national guard, developed its units on the basis of racial “aptitudes.” Planation owners and operators created separate villages (camps) for different ethnicities. Nonetheless, the laboring classes eventually formed a sense of unity, as evidenced by intermarriage and by a growing labor movement. So by the 1930s Honolulu was indeed diverse, reflective of the diversity of the islands as a whole.

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“Kamehameha the Great” statue, Hawaii, Carol M. Highsmith, December 6, 2005, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In many cities on the U.S. mainland, FHA housing policies and HOLC housing maps emerged in the 1930s and contributed greatly to institutionalizing housing segregation. I wonder if this history differs in Honolulu; for example, since it was a not a state until 1959 perhaps these policies did not affect it as acutely or at all? Also, since Honolulu is on the island of Oahu and due to the city’s demographic diversity, did anything along the lines of “white flight” occur?

Honolulu was probably far les segregated than any other US city in the 1930s. Older upper-end suburbs such as Manoa or Nu‘uanu had tacit agreements for white-only residents. Some of these expectations were written into covenants governing new land subdivisions during the early part of the twentieth century. Certainly by the 1930s these were effectively ended. By the late 1940s and 1950s they had ended even more certainly. There was no explicit segregation in Hawai’i and most neighborhoods had a mixture of different ethnicities. Hawai’ian-haole (white Euro-American) marriages were common as well, breaching the racial barrier at both the top and bottom of the social ladder. The Japanese, which comprised as much as 60 percent of the population in the 1930s, was the last group to let up on ethnic restrictions in marriage. But by the 1960s, Japanese young people were marrying out of their own ethic bounds. By the 1950s as well, former all-white enclaves, such as Manoa, had opened up to non-white ownership and residence.

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Chinatown, Ryan Reft, June 2017

As noted in the report, urban renewal policies nearly destroyed the Chinatown community in the 1960s. Similar policies in places like Chicago often removed minority and working class communities, replacing them with highways and “economic development projects” and ultimately reinforced racism while hollowing out cities. How did urban renewal unfold in the 1960s in Honolulu and what were the consequences?

The urban renewal project in Chinatown and what was then Japan-town (the Aala area) provided opportunities for many Chinese and Japanese families and individuals. There had been significant disinvestment in both areas in the post World War II era. Many owners welcomed the opportunity to sell under the Urban Renewal Program. (The program allowed for appraisals well above the market rate, a fact that benefitted many owners.) Both Japanese and Chinese residents had been migrating to the suburbs since the 1900, leaving largely landless people still within the community. Many of these residents did in fact lose their homes, notably the many wood houses along Vineyard Street and within the Aala area. But the more prosperous ownership class clearly profited from the program. None of this really affected the racial and ethnic makeup of the city. The public housing replacing Chinatown and Aala shops now houses mostly Pacific island and Filipino populations, along with Hawai’ians and other ethnic mixes. The sum total of housing probably increased in both areas through the public housing projects, which are still there.

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Chinatown Market, Ryan Reft, June 2017

When I visited Honolulu recently, I spent some time in the Chinatown neighborhood, which seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. When I spoke with one proprietor she suggested that it was within last 12-18 months that more boutique stores and restaurants began popping up around the community, but judging from the report, it would seem that Chinatown’s development/“comeback” has been some time in the making. Can you provide some context for its current trajectory? Are there any drawbacks to these changes such as gentrification possibly forcing out long time residents—or this really a feel good story?

Chinatown’s “comeback” has been slow. In the postwar period, Chinatown had become the haunt of cheap bars and dance halls and pool halls. These evolved to be even cheaper bars and go-go bars. There was widespread drug use and prostitution in the area, a legacy of earlier times, during the 1960s and 1970s. National Register nomination and the creation of a special planning district in the 1970s and 1980s helped to reverse the downward trend, though major arteries such as Hotel Street remained seedy and dangerous. The fact that many community services, including housing for the homeless and drug treatment centers, were located in Chinatown worked against the “rebranding” of the 13-acre area as an upscale gallery and entertainment zone. “First Fridays,” beginning in the early 2000s, helped to change the area’s image. But the process has been slow. It is important to realize that what is now called Chinatown included at the east (Diamond Head) end several streets more associated with downtown Honolulu than with Chinatown proper; so it is perhaps wrong to think of Chinatown’s character being altered through gentrification. Nuuanu and Bethal Streets were always part of Honolulu’s nightlife and important site of many of the city’s movie theaters. Their revival, therefore—notably the refurbishment and reopening of the Hawai’i Theatre in the 1980s—was actually simply bringing some of the old life of the area back. The large number of Vietnamese and Laotian shopkeepers and sellers at farmers’ markets has had the effect of keeping the area predominantly “Chinese” in character; many of the Lao and Vietnamese are in fact ethnically Chinese.

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Waikiki at night, Honolulu, Hawaii, Ryan Reft, June 2017

Where do you see the future of Honolulu as a city going?

We seem to be becoming a new site of luxury high-rises, growing out of the old industrial area of Kakaako. Urban renewal and new construction destroyed many of the great buildings of the 1920s and 1930s downtown. Retail commerce is shifting nearly entirely to shopping malls, making it difficult for mom-and-pop stores to survive. The elevated train, if it is ever completed, could do much to stitch together the urban fabric of the city but how this will take place is not yet apparent. I am hopeful that special attention can be given to remnants of earlier commercial centers, such as Waialae Avenue and Kapahulu Avenue, both of which retain many buildings from the 1930s through 1950s and still have an “authentic” urban character. However, this would require investment from the city, which is not at all likely. I fear Honolulu will become a rather sterile place of shopping malls and luxury high-rises, oriented increasingly to the visitor industry. I am hoping that we can revive the heritage area concept and begin interpreting through museums and information plaques and kiosks to make the city’s history more meaningful for both visitors and residents.

William Chapman is Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Educated at Columbia (M.S. in Historic Preservation, 1978) and at Oxford University in England (D.Phil. in Anthropology, 1982), he specializes in architectural recording, the management of historic districts, and materials conservation. Dr. Chapman is widely recognized as a leading authority in recording historic architecture and in policies and procedures for historic preservation at both the local and national levels.

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