It’s been four governors, four mayors, and 35 years since the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was closed after years of neglect. With each new mayoral election a new round of political rhetoric ensues.

There’s no question that many people are tired of the years of bickering and some seem willing to risk even a bad political choice between demolition or restoration just to avoid another round of skewed political dialogue.

I urge the city to give a lot more thought to the onerous long-term impact of the publicly stated position of demolition as the preferred option before making such an irreversible and historic decision that, in the end, will speak volumes of who we are as a people.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is closed now, but its iconic swimming pool and bleachers remain.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is closed now, but its iconic swimming pool and bleachers remain.

Wikimedia Commons


Every town has its treasured historic places that connects its past to its future in which the soul of the society rests as an anchor to and celebration of where they came from. One of the marks of the great cities of the world is the degree to which they cherish their historic institutions enough to preserve them in perpetuity. In many respects it is also a measure of the greatness of the society itself.

From this perch, the idea of demolishing the Natatorium ranks up there with the really bad idea attempts to demolish Iolani Palace to build a downtown parking lot and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for a new beachfront high rise hotel.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was commissioned to be built in 1921 by the Territorial Legislature as a war memorial to honor the men and women of Hawaii who served and died in the “Great War” – World War I.

This Sepia of Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial near Kaimana Beach was done in 1928, just a few years after it opened.

This Sepia of Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial near Kaimana Beach was done in 1928, just a few years after it opened.

The land on which the Natatorium sits is owned by the State of Hawaii but management of the memorial is under the jurisdiction of the City and County of Honolulu in an agreement with the state. In the end, both city and state must agree on the next steps.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium joins the Royal Hawaiian (1920) and Moana (1927) hotels as the last great historic treasures of the Waikiki shoreline still standing on the world’s most famous beach. These three landmarks are connected in a symbiotic triangle that defines one of Hawaii’s greatest eras.

The Moana, Royal Hawaiian and Natatorium — a three-legged stool in a historic grid that in modern times still manifests a genuine Hawaiian sense of place long gone from anywhere else in Waikiki. They each played a pivotal role in introducing Hawaii to the global society. All three are priceless.

The Gathering Place

In 1921 the Territorial Legislature enacted Act 15 to build the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. Act 15 specifies the present location. The beachfront land was purchased from the Irwin Estate (as in Irwin Park across from Aloha Tower) in what I believe was a conditioned sale that specifically cited the land-use purpose for a war memorial. The Legislature further conditioned that the design “shall include a swimming course at least 100 meters in length” thereby establishing the pool as a fundamental condition of the sale.

It was a resounding success as a recreational facility and as a world class training site for a parade of Hawaii born Olympic medal winners beginning with Duke Kahanamoku and including Olympic legends Buster Crabbe, Dick Cleveland, Bill Woolsey and Ford Kono, as well as legendary swim coach Soichi Sakamoto. It was a showcase for Olympic swim meets attracting the world’s best swimmers like Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan fame to Waikiki.

The U.S. swim team at the Natatorium.

The U.S. swim team at the Natatorium.


But, for all its global reputation as a place of celebrity, it’s most profound and greatest memories were lodged in the hearts and minds of thousands of Hawaii kids, like myself. We flocked to “the tank” from everywhere on the island. To swim, play tag, jump from the dive towers, and just hang. It was a safe place for us to gather, be ourselves, and stay out of trouble. The tank was the great socio-economic equalizer for kids. No one cared if you were rich, poor, or where you lived.

The Politics

For all its popularity from 1927 into the 1970s, age took its toll in the absence of regular maintenance. Its deteriorating condition and water circulation issues sparked a number of political attempts by beach enthusiasts to demolish the structure to create more beach.

The repeated attempts were finally abated in 1973 by a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling halting the demolition effort for a number of reasons, I believe relating to the proposed change in land use from the original purpose of Act 15. Without any progress on what to do and the continued deterioration, the Natatorium was closed in 1980.

The effort to demolish was kept alive by studies in 1981 and 1984 but unexpectedly the studies showed that restoring the memorial was the best course of action.

For all its popularity from 1927 into the 1970s, age took its toll in the absence of regular maintenance.

In 1986, I chaired the House Committee on Ocean and Marine Resources, and joined an effort led by a small group of locals who formed The Friends of the Natatorium and began lobbying the Legislature for funds to begin a full restoration process.

Led by Maui Sen. Mamoru Yamasaki, Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, with the full support of Bill Paty, Chair of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, and supported by Gov. John Waihee, the Legislature appropriated $1.8 million for the planning and design of a fully restored Natatorium.

In 1990, while Jeremy Harris served as Managing Director of the City and County of Honolulu under Mayor Frank Fasi, he forged an understanding between the state and city for full restoration as the best course of action after completing a $1.2 million dollar planning process. The city passed Ordinance 90-1 formally advising the state of its commitment to restore and operate the memorial as it was intended – as a Natatorium.

In 1994, Jeremy Harris sprang from his Managing Director post to succeed Frank Fasi as Mayor of Honolulu and by 2000 had arranged for a fully funded $11.5 million restoration including successfully navigating a planning and permitting gauntlet to secure a plethora of 15 permits.

Restoration construction commenced but a lawsuit brought by those continuing to pursue the more beach alternative resulted in the courts suspending restoration of the pool pending Department of Health rules for salt water pools (a bizarre subject for another day). However, the city was able to proceed with restoration of the facade and bleacher sections as a phase one, separating the pool restoration as a phase two.

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 the wall that surrounds the Natatorium shows the neglect.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The clock began to tick on resuming pool restoration and stall tactics that include the three years it took to promulgate the salt water pool rules. Before Mayor Harris was able to complete his commitment to full restoration he was succeeded by Mufi Hanneman as mayor.

Hanneman had made a campaign promise to supporters of the beach alternative and honored that commitment by cancelling the phase two restoration effort, returning the already committed funds to the city’s general fund. Hanneman stated his objection as being the cost of the restoration and made it known that he was going to find a less expensive alternative.

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commissioned by the city, completed a study that was released to the public and reported that building a new beach at the Natatoirum’s location would not be less expensive than completing the restoration.

Mayor Hanneman then launched, in my opinion, a suspect appointed Natatorium Task Force to examine the options – again.

The task force, which was split 9-6 supported the mayor’s preferred alternative – demolish the memorial, rebuild a replica of the facade (minus the bleachers) farther inland, and construct a man-made beach to replace the pool. An environmental impact statement process was set in motion for the demolition and new beach scenario. Mayor Hanneman left the city to run for governor, and his successor, Mayor Kirk Caldwell, inherited the controversy.

Where Does The New Beach Lead?

Fast forward to the current processing of the EIS. What’s important to know is that the EIS statement of purpose is carefully languaged to explore the new beach alternative.

By exclusion, restoration is not an option. The exclusion of the restoration alternative flies in the face of the fact that the memorial is a formally declared national historic treasure and I believe the EIS must, by law, include a restoration alternative.

To be caretakers of these historic corridors of human existence is among the noblest of human endeavors for to not preserve our past is to be without a reflection in the waters of time.

There are so many legal and planning and permitting hurdles (federal, state, and city) that need to be cleared to pursue the new beach alternative. Among them: changing the use of the land as specified by Act 15, the environmental laws that govern the reshaping of the coastal configuration of the shoreline, and, most important, what happens to San Souci (Kaimana Beach) when the walls of the Natatorium are demolished and there is no longer a revetment to hold the sand in place.

The fact that the Natatorium walls serve a sand revetment function for the beach that is already there triggers a fundamental irony.

The new beach design requires replacing the existing Natatorium walls with a groin system that falls on the same footprint. The Corps of Engineers plans that I saw called for the demolished walls to be replaced with new walls with an opening on the outside wall for tidal flow. The drawings I saw resembled a small boat harbor with an opening for transiting in and out. These new walls would be vital to protecting the existing beach as well as for creating a revetment system for the new beach. All of this to add 100 feet of additional beach.

What Price Glory

The cost of full restoration seems to loom as the largest political issue invoked to win support for the demolition/new beach alternative. The numbers being thrown around are blatantly skewed as a scare tactic. Hopefully, the EIS process, if it includes a restoration alternative will yield some reliable numbers and stop the fiction.

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

Political battles continue over whether the memorial should be restored or torn down.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

More importantly, as long as the saber-rattling for demolition as the preferred course of action as stated in the purpose of the EIS continues, any effort to launch a private sector restoration fund drive is quashed. I do believe, between the Friends of the Natatorium and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (who are now formally engaged in the restoration effort), that appeals to the major players of the national charitable foundations and trusts has a good chance of success to save such a national treasure as we are blessed to have.

Man is the only species capable of altering landscapes by constructing monumental structures that stretch across the ages as testaments of who we are and where we have been.

When these testaments to our existence are linked they form a time wave upon which rides our community memory, pausing briefly in the present, and tumbling us forward into the future. To be caretakers of these historic corridors of human existence is among the noblest of human endeavors for to not preserve our past is to be without a reflection in the waters of time.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium and its fate will surely be a test of our human dignity and speak volumes to whether the value of our existence as a society in the present is heightened or diminished.

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    A former legislator, Peter Apo is a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the president of the Peter Apo Company LLC, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of OHA or other organizations he is involved in.