Along the beach at Waikiki, from Ala Wai boat harbor to the Diamond Head lighthouse, the most iconic feature has to be the quirky, foursquare concrete swimming pool of the Natatorium, laid out onto the reef itself by the people of Hawaii 88 years ago.

Dedicated as a living monument to those men and women of Hawaii who volunteered to serve in World War I — the 101 who died and 10,000 veterans — ”The War Memorial,” as it’s labeled, remains Waikiki’s most obvious scenic irregularity, apparent to anyone flying into or out of HNL.

On the ground, the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium (its official name), with its Beaux-Arts-styled grand arch and arcades, presents a striking image of monumentality within its setting of lawn, ancient coconut groves, banyan trees, beach, reef and ocean, to paraphrase the assessment documents that affirmed the landmark’s entry into the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

In terms of impact on the surrounding area, its massive bulwarks have, over time, effectively delineated — and separated — two different urban spaces: to the west, the Waikiki Aquarium, Queen’s Surf and the rest of the Waikiki resort district; to the east, a quieter realm of local places … Kaimana and Kapua channel, San Souci, the Outrigger, the Elks, Old Man’s, the Gold Coast, Tongg’s, Lanihau and the beach parks at Makalei, Leahi and Diamond Head itself.

Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial with afternoon sunset. 13 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium in a mid-June sunset.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ever since the pool and its concrete bleachers were closed to the public in 1979 because of neglect and corrosion — and, let’s face it, totally dated, less-than-seaworthy design and construction — mayors, governors, engineers, activists and even some national observers have argued about what to do as it continues to collapse. Right now, with centennial observances of World War I occurring nationwide, the mood is shifting. Old arguments are giving way to new, cost-effective technologies that might allow some kind of restoration and reopening of what was always a public pool.

It’s been a long road.

“The Natatorium is a recognized architectural landmark and commemorates the Hawaiian islands’ indigenous swimming traditions and role in Olympic history.” — National Trust for Historic Preservation

Back in 1965, the Honolulu City Council voted to demolish the thing. Four years later, Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, a man famous for tearing down old stuff, declared the Natatorium “run-down, unsafe and a health hazard that should be eliminated.”

The city’s unsentimental attitude irritated old-school Honolulu preservationists who eventually started the Friends of the Natatorium, the high-profile volunteer group that has been advocating for the restoration of the Natatorium pool since 1986. In 1995, they got the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which declared the Natatorium one of the country’s 11 most threatened historic places.

Two years later, Mayor Jeremy Harris announced a $11.5 million project to restore the Natatorium, with plans for it to be turned over, on completion, to the Friends to operate and maintain.

News reports of the time mentioned user fees and concession income. Mayor Harris casually suggested that tourist-oriented aquacade shows might help cover maintenance costs. A yoga teacher and Kaimana beach swimmer named Rick Bernstein seized on Harris’ comments and made them the central issue of the Natatorium’s planned restoration. In a statement published weeks after Harris’ announcement, Bernstein argued that Harris’ plan would turn the old place into a commercial tourist attraction, a revenue generator, with a pool, a “2,500-seat entertainment stadium,” a museum, snack bar, and gift shop. Parking nearby would disappear, he claimed. Kaimana beach would become inaccessible and overwhelmed with tourists, no longer a local hangout.

“The people of Honolulu may soon lose something very special … to monied interests and the tourist industry,” Bernstein intoned.

There were existing, inexpensive plans to replace the pool with a beach, he noted.

From then on, Bernstein was the pro-demolition side’s frontman, spokesperson for the Save Kaimana Beach Coalition. Always available to reporters, Bernstein was Paul Revere, warning of danger, writing op-eds and letters to the editor, harping on the nowhere-planned commercialization of an in-distress public monument and the unholy threat it posed to the chill denizens of Kaimana beach. “Demolition!” was his unseemly call to arms.

But his was a confounding and illogical argument: Replacing the pool with an attractive, sandy cove would not save Kaimana. Instead, it would extend Waikiki proper right up to and across the threshold. (Through his attorney, Bernstein declined a request for an interview.)

View thru one of the portals in a wall that surrounds the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial. 13 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A view through one of the portals in a wall that surrounds the Natatorium.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In one of his first executive actions as mayor, Mufi Hannemann scrapped his predecessor’s renovation plan in midstream, in 2005, after $4.5 million had already been spent fixing up the bathrooms and office space under the Natatorium’s bleachers. Hannemann then appointed a task force to study the matter. The task force voted 9-3 to remove the pool and reinstall the preserved grand archway slightly mauka so that a new beach could be created, cradled between sand-catching groins that roughly match the footprint of the existing side walls of the pool.

As it turned out, the two most obvious tourist-industry representatives on Hannemann’s task force — Rick Egged of the Waikiki Improvement Association and Jean Pierre Cercillieux, general manager of the nearby New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel — voted in favor of demolishing the pool. Their votes contradicted Bernstein’s alarmist fears about monied interests behind a tricked-out Natatorium. Clearly, the industry prefers adding more beach to Waikiki.

On a sunny day in April 2013, a buoyant Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Kirk Caldwell held a press conference to announce they were in agreement and would move forward with an $18.4 million plan to demolish the pool and develop a public memorial beach on the site, pending completion of the project’s environmental impact statement. But for Abercrombie and Caldwell, the comparative costs of demo v. reno were already conclusive enough: Renovating the pool would cost $69 million, Caldwell told the gathered press.

A year after the joint announcement, with the city’s environmental scoping and review process moving at a snail’s pace, the NTHP upped the ante and declared the Natatorium a “National Treasure,” which means the organization will actively campaign for (and raise funds for) protection and restoration of the monument—and against the city and state’s declared demolition plan.

“The Natatorium is a recognized architectural landmark and commemorates the Hawaiian islands’ indigenous swimming traditions and role in Olympic history,” the NTHP press release said. It also mentioned that the nation is currently observing the Centennial of World War I (1914-1918).

Sure enough, a few months later Mayor Caldwell received a letter from Edwin L. Fountain, vice chairman of the United States World War I Centennial Commission. “I want to express my concern about the proposed demolition of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium and to urge instead that it be rehabilitated and preserved,” Fountain wrote to Caldwell. “The War Memorial Natatorium stands apart from other memorials … in how closely it is tied to the local culture and landscape.”

“… because of the Natatorium’s iconic significance and because of its benefits to the community, maybe everyone can conclude that restoration is the way to go. We’re trying to come up with a workable solution based on sound engineering.” — Mo Radke, president of the Friends of the Natatorium

Fountain described the costly efforts other communities around the country are making to maintain their own aging WWI memorials, “many quite magnificent.” Razing the pool and leaving a “token” arch would, Fountain said, “deal a fatal blow to one of the most noteworthy World War I memorials in the country.”

The same month, the city Department of Design and Construction received nearly 1,200 comment letters in support of efforts to revive the Natatorium for its original purpose as a public oceanfront pool.

In early June, the director of the department, Robert Kroning, signaled an apparent sea-change in the city’s attitude. In a letter to community participants in the EIS scoping meetings, he informed them that the draft EIS for the city’s demolition plan, scheduled to be released this summer, would be delayed. Comments received by the city suggested the need to “conduct additional analysis of existing alternatives,” he wrote. Moreover, the city’s consultations with the state’s Historic Preservation Office “suggest that inclusion of additional alternatives may be required.” The director said his office would try to complete the process and issue the draft EIS within 18 months.

Mo Radke, president of the Friends of the Natatorium, tells me that, based on his discussions with engineers looking at the issue, he’s hopeful the EIS will conclude that the costs of the pool’s demolition will be in the same ballpark as the cost of restoration. “Then,” he says, “because of the Natatorium’s iconic significance and because of its benefits to the community, maybe everyone can conclude that restoration is the way to go. We’re trying to come up with a workable solution based on sound engineering.

“I mean, anytime you tell someone about the Natatorium, people want to help. They always ask, ‘Why would anyone want to tear it down?’ ”

Last year, former Civil Beat reporter Adrienne Lafrance published a thoughtful piece about the Natatorium in the Atlantic magazine. Wistful and puzzled, she wrestles with her obvious affection for the grandiose oddity. She writes, “It is a steady, hulking memory of the past that lives with us in the present. In the shadow of the volcano Diamond Head on one side, the Natatorium feels puny and new. But looking the other way, toward the modern hotels that crawl up the coast, the old memorial is like an anchor that keeps the past from being swept out to sea.”

Or, as the mother tells her teenage son in the recent bestselling novel “The Goldfinch,” “Anything we save from history is a miracle.”

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