When renovators stepped inside the abandoned brick building at 25 N. Hotel Street, the exotic dancers’ poles were still standing. Plants had sprouted inside the forgotten nightclub.
Club Hubba Hubba, that icon of Chinatown sleaze whose dancing girls had a knack for attracting young sailors in the 1940s and 1950s, has been closed since 1997. There’s been talk of its possible reopening since it was shuttered.
Only now is that process actually under way.
Mason Architects is working on a $700,000 overhaul of the historic Honolulu building, which was built in the late 1800s and became a nightclub in the 1940s.
“We wanted to keep the whole significant elements of the building, the whole shell of it,” said Anna Grune, an architectural historian working with Mason Architects on the project. “Inside they had the strip bar, the stage and the pole, the whole nine yards. The new owners are going to have live music but from people with clothes on.”
As local architects breathe new life into Hubba Hubba, they’re also trying to save the long-darkened neon sign — “Club Hubba Hubba: Live Nude Shows” — that once blinked at passersby. The sign went up in 1953, and unless planners obtain a special permit to keep it, it may have to come down for good.
“We had to do a major rehabilitation,” Grune said. “Part of the permit to do the renovation, part of the provision was to take down the sign. We agreed initially to get the permit, but later on we applied for a sign variance to keep the sign.”
The chief of customer service for the Department of Planning and Permitting, Art Challacombe, says it appears the architects at Mason are close to getting what they want. He says the department processed Mason’s request in February, and it usually tries to issue a decision within 90 days.
“It should be well on its way,” Challacombe said. “I’m going to anticipate that there should not be any problem with it. I certainly agreed that the sign should remain.”
Grune says she’s hopeful to have an answer from the department as soon as this week. Glenn Mason, the president of Mason Architects, appealed directly to the department’s director in January.
“The loss of this historically significant sign would have an adverse effect to the building, Hotel Street, Chinatown Historic District and Hawaii as a whole,” Mason wrote in a January letter to Department of Planning and Permitting director David Tanoue. “There are many references and recent articles about the sign and its folklore and its eccentricities.”
Mason also argues the sign is a work of art. It’s one of the few remaining marks that Robert “Bozo” Shigemura left on Chinatown. Shigemura was a bender, the term for someone who creates neon signs. He was also the craftsman behind the original Hawaii Theatre marquee and the iconic Wo Fat Chop Sui sign just a few blocks ewa of what was once Club Hubba Hubba.
The classic Hubba Hubba sign, which also features the figure of a dancing woman, does not conform with city zoning laws because it no longer advertises or promotes the business conducted inside, and it exceeds the allowable size.
“Technically, it is a code violation but we’re not going to act on it unless we receive a complaint,” Challacombe said. “There is a mechanism to preserve the sign, and there is precedent because there’s a historic nature. I would say that Club Hubba Hubba falls in this category. If I recall correctly, I was watching the History Channel, and they had a piece on Hawaii in World War II. They had a photograph of Club Hubba Hubba, and all these sailors milling around there.”
One of the recent local examples of a historic sign that the city allowed to stay in place despite violations of land-use ordinances is the McCully Chop Sui sign, which glows on the corner of South King and McCully. It was salvaged and lit up once again in 2008.
The Outdoor Circle, a vocal opponent of many signs, supported salvaging that sign. The group now supports salvaging the Hubba Hubba neon, too.
“We think it’s really important to protect the community from inappropriate signage,” said Bob Loy, director of environmental programs. “As strange as that may sound talking about a strip joint, it needs to be kept. On the surface, it might seem like, ‘Why would the Outdoor Circle be in favor of any sign, much less a sign for a business that doesn’t exist anymore?’ Well, it’s not necessarily the sign but what it represents, its historic elements that we think are important and appropriate to be retained and maintained in our community.”
There are many local legends about Club Hubba Hubba. In the decades before it became a club, there was a barbershop there. In the last decades of its existence, it’s rumored that before-she-was-famous rocker Courtney Love was fired from her job there.
“First it was called Cafe Hubba Hubba, then Club Hubba Hubba,” Grune said. “After World War II, it was again revitalized. The police just kind of turned their heads, and the military guys would come down here. Part of the rumor is that Courtney Love worked there, and they fired her because she was too fat.”
Looking to the future, Grune says she expects the former Hubba Hubba to be a “really nice” bar and restaurant venue. She can already picture people milling about in the courtyard, and the live music that’s sure to attract crowds to Chinatown. She says she believes the second floor might be open for office space.
But as one Chinatown legend reinvents itself, Grune hopes the sign out front will harken back to a seedier past.
“You can still see some of the remnants of how it was before,” Grune said. “It withstood the fires. Back when there was a massive opium trade, it was standing. There’s rumors that there are still opium tunnels. It may not be the most attractive history but it’s still history nonetheless.”