“They’re simple little buildings, totally different from the mainland. They take advantage of the weather.”

So observes Honolulu architectural historian Don Hibbard as we talk about Oahu’s wonderful if troubled collection of beach park pavilions or “comfort stations” or restrooms or toilets or whatever you call them. They’re threatened by a lot of things, by rust and rot and vandals, but mostly by neglect.

Times change, homelessness is a scourge and senseless vandalism is a plague, but so is the thoughtless bureaucratic urge to make it newer, safer and easier to clean. People will always need to use the facilities (another euphemism), and it would be smart if we could somehow continue to offer ourselves — and the rent-a-car hordes — the unique cultural experience that is Honolulu’s heritage of great beach pavilion design, for years to come.

Kualoa Beach Park Pavillion

A beach pavillion at Kualoa Regional Park, designed by architect James Sato and built in 1973.

Darren Bradley

Some beach pavilions are indelible in the local mind: the Waialae Beach Park pavilion, with its quatrefoil columns raising its pleated roof well above its toilet stalls and shower rooms; or the stark, lava-rock fortress at Makapuu, whose ramparts hide an extraordinarily graffitied and stinky men’s toilet and changing room — from which you might want to look up through the partially open roof to see the sky and the Koolau rampart looming overhead; or Kailua Beach’s grand pavilion-in-a-parking lot, so busy and so used!

Hibbard says his favorite beach pavilion is the rustic comfort station huddled under the kamani trees at Kahana Bay landing, operated by state’s parks division. A pile of big lava-rock boulders with massive log beams and open rafters, the building, designed in 1964 by architect Robert Law, feels primal and so firmly rooted to the place that it will never leave. Law and his partner James Wilson also designed the Waikiki Shell, the state DOT building on Punchbowl Street and two important churches: the Kalihi Union Church on North King and the Church of the Holy Nativity on Kalanianaole in Aina Haina.

Hibbard and I talk about restoration and maintenance issues. “I’m surprised that most of them are graffiti free,” he says. “Maybe people respect them too much for that.”

Here’s a slideshow of some of Oahu’s beach pavilions.

Taking the Pavilion Tour

I casually toured about 20 of Oahu’s pavilions in mid-April to see for myself how they’re doing. Many were graffiti free, but not all. A few, mostly along the heavily trafficked southeast coast, had lots of graffiti, including, in a neat, red-inked font, libelous charges of pederasty, pyromania, thievery, money laundering and yakuza connections made against named individuals. “NALO,” someone else scrawled, big and bold.

“Leave the f…en toilet paper alone, dummiez,” read one stall, with its messy stack of tiny sheets purveyed from an improvised wood shelf screwed into the cinder-block. At Kokololio Beach Park in Hauula, someone jerry-rigged a cut-open plastic milk jug to dispense TP. Happily for everybody, I can report that most of our pavilions come furnished with some sort of toilet paper supply (but not all!), and I’ll guess that women’s toilets do better. Broken fixtures — sinks, drinking fountains, urinals, toilets — covered with black plastic garbage bags were not uncommon. Most faucets worked, but some did not or had broken drain pipes.

Waimanalo Beach Park has two distinct pavilions serving it: a small concrete-block comfort station with a butterfly roof set under the ironwoods near the beach and parking lot, while the larger, older pavilion, erected in 1959 and designed by Denver-born architect Frank Slavsky, is set back from the beach in a large lawn adjacent to the play field. Its main feature is a grand, central A-frame roof that looks like a big, open-air hale or longhouse, except for the massive concrete trusses on boldly canted footings. The stained concrete flooring is shiny and cool; on the weekday that I visited, there were bicycles, carts, backpacks, coolers and other camping/living gear stashed here and there inside and outside the hale.

Front-and-center is a plaque affixed to the massive lava-rock wall that closes off the hale’s south end: “Waimanalo Beach Park Pavilion,” it reads. “Dedicated to Gabby “Pop” Pahinui, April 22, 1921 – October 13, 1980.”

Maybe a dozen people loll about around the Waimanalo hale perimeter. They talk among themselves and give me the finger when I take a few pictures of the room. In a lava-rock and concrete-block men’s room that has seen better days, some guy’s personal articles spill out from under a stall door. The man inside makes some noises as I approach but doesn’t come out. No TP in the stalls.

Many of the older pavilions, “though they’re beautiful, are conducive to vandalism and misuse. And once they reach a certain age, there are stains and odors you can’t remove. …most of our facilities are cleaned multiple times a day.” — Jon Hennington, Honolulu Parks and Recreation

The soigné Haleiwa Beach Park pavilion was likewise home to a small family of presumably homeless folks on the day I visited, with their belongings strewn about the north end of the elongated pavilion. The building, which is mostly a long, vineless pergola with toilets deftly fitted in, was designed in the 1930s, according to historian Hibbard, by New Mexico-native Harry Sims Bent, the architect for the Honolulu Board of Parks in the late 1930s. With its elegant elongations and simplified slot openings, the structure, Hibbard observes, recalls the deco-inflected walls and pergola at Mother Waldron Playground, or Ala Moana Beach Park’s original gateways and bridges, or the walls at Kawananakoa Playground in Nuuanu, all of them designed by Bent. Sections of the elaborate sea wall fronting the pavilion are collapsing, and orange mesh fencing and yellow safety tape cordon off the area.

“Haleiwa Beach Park will be refurbished soon,” promises Jon Hennington, the public information officer for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “We already did Haleiwa Alii. We’re not going to change any of the architecture, we’re just going to repair what’s there. If it’s structurally sound, we’re going to continue to use it.”

But unfortunately, he says, many of the older pavilions, “though they’re beautiful, are conducive to vandalism and mis-use. They’re closed off visually from the outside, so it’s quite labor intensive to inspect and clean them. And once they reach a certain age, there are stains and odors you can’t remove. That’s why there’s sometimes a perception that a facility hasn’t been cleaned, when most of our facilities are cleaned multiple times a day.”

The parks department, with an annual budget of $65 million, runs 65 beach parks out of a total of nearly 300 named parks on Oahu. The newest comfort station the city built is at Nani Kai Beach Park in Maili.

Will One Size Fit All?

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s recent initiative to master plan a new and improved Ala Moana Beach Park drew a lot of comment and suspicion regarding “public-private partnerships” and the fear that the grand urban park will become merely the front yard for the mondo-condo set moving into the towers on the other side of Ala Moana Boulevard.

At the same time, the city announced it was redesigning the busy comfort station at the Diamond Head end of the beach in order to make it safer and easier to clean. Basically, the new restrooms will be like a row of six porta-potties, with each toilet available to anyone who needs it, male or female (thus the headlines about “unisex” bathrooms).

See architectural firm Lou Chan & Associates’ Ala Moana Comfort Station Rendering.

In March, Parks Department spokesperson Chris Dacus told KHON News, “We’re eliminating all hiding places in our new design.” No more changing rooms, sinks out in the open, and the locking stall doors face the parking lot. And, oh yeah, the new prototype, designed by Lou Chan & Associates, features a little double-pitch roof to cap and unify the stalls, so it doesn’t, in fact, look like a row of porta-potties.

“It’s easier to maintain, it’s more efficient, and it’s definitely more vandal resistant,” Dacus told KHON reporter Brigette Namata. “So it should be able to be maintained with less resources and be kept cleaner than other comfort stations.”

Namata concluded her report, “If [the prototype] is a success, the restrooms could be changed at other city parks as well.”

Uh oh. Will one size fit all? We’ll see.

Thus forewarned, I visit Ewa Beach Park and discover an amazing modernist dream, full of culturally rich meaning and rational efficiency: a sweeping green lawn that leads to the beach and the huge, open-sided roof of a great abstracted gesture of a Hawaiian hale. Next to it, along the park’s boundary, is a very long cream-colored and faintly gridded wall, about seven feet high and made of square cement blocks. The wall zig-zags at 90-degree angles by the free-standing hale then reaches out in a straight line all the way to the beach dune. The zig-zags ingeniously hide the completely roofless (this is Ewa Beach!) men’s and women’s changing areas and toilets on the inside, while the angles define the two shower areas.

It’s the most beautiful beach pavilion I’ve ever seen, and it’s not in bad shape. Don Hibbard tells me it was designed by Potter & Potter architects back in 1956, during architectural modernism’s first bloom across the nation. London-born Mark Potter also designed Kilohana, the Wilcox mansion just outside Lihue, Kauai, and, later, the modernist State Archive building that glints from behind the banyan tree at Iolani Palace. Hibbard suspects Potter’s son, Gordon Potter, had a hand in the pavilion.

What’s your favorite beach pavilion?

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