The latest idea for what to do with the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was announced Nov. 8, just three days before the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I was commemorated.

That’s fitting, as it seems we’ve been arguing about what to do with the natatorium — which was built as a monument to Hawaii’s men and women who served in The Great War — for nearly as long a time. The natatorium was opened in 1927 but has been closed since 1979.

Supporters of preserving the dilapidated, deteriorating natatorium hailed a new proposal to spend $25.6 million to essentially rebuild the structure, including the outdoor saltwater pool.

The city is now welcoming public comment until Dec. 24 on the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed project. A final EIS could come as early as September.

The natatorium and the Waikiki skyline. Sans Souci beach is in the foreground. If you look closely enough, you’ll spot the author doing laps.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Is the natatorium conundrum, which has bedeviled Hawaii governors and legislatures and Honolulu mayors and councils for decades, finally to be resolved? I have my doubts.

After scanning the 259 pages of the draft EIS and two websites dedicated to full restoration of the natatorium’s place in Oahu history, it’s obvious that the facility has been troubled from the very beginning. Its fate also involves multiple layers of government agencies (the natatorium is owned by the state but operated by the City and County of Honolulu), rules and regulations.

The list of acronyms alone takes up two full pages in the draft EIS, ranging from ACHP (Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) to HIHWNMS (Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary).

The archway entrance to the natatorium pool.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Equally daunting is the list of permits and approvals identified for what is called the Waikiki War Memorial Complex (or WWMC): There are eight at the federal level, five at the state level and five at the county level.

To put it simply, the natatorium problem can’t be simply solved.

‘Constant Problems’

Less than two years after Duke Kahanamoku inaugurated the pool on his birthday as its first swimmer, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran a story titled “When Will Something be Done?” According to Historic Hawaii Foundation’s timeline, the article described the “deplorable conditions” of the natatorium and its grounds.

It turns out that the natatorium’s original design “was never fully implemented during construction due to budget cuts.” The drainage system had “constant problems” and made for “poor water circulation and poor water quality.”

For the next half century, the natatorium would be subject to a series of starts and stops: repair and refurbish plans made and shelved; transfers of management, maintenance and appropriations; closures due to poor water quality, reports on hazardous conditions, orders to demolish and cancelations of said orders.

But the natatorium would also be placed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places in 1973 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 — the same year it was padlocked.

By 1995, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium as one of the most 11 endangered historic sites in the nation. And in 2014 it was designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The natatorium under construction in 1927, viewed from what is now Sans Souci Beach Park.

City and County of Honolulu

The natatorium, the Historic Hawaii Foundation states on its website for the natatorium, “is part of a growing portfolio of irreplaceable, diverse places — from ancient sites to modern monuments — that have been designated National Treasures.”

The nonprofit Friends of the Natatorium describes it as a “living” war memorial and a place for people to be together and “enjoy the freedoms that the warriors purchased with their youth and with their lives.”

But the natatorium is also a crumbling dump, a public health and safety hazard and a monument to government inefficiency and legal wrangling. It is an eyesore for visitors and locals alike, situated in one of the most desirable recreational spots on all of Oahu.

In June of 2017, the natatorium’s sad visage made headlines when Kaimana, the Hawaiian monk seal that Rocky gave birth to, got trapped in the natatorium three times. Fortunately, it was rescued by NOAA’s Marine Mammal response team.

Dishonoring The Dead

The current plan would call for demolishing the pool’s Ewa and makai sea walls and reconstructing a new pool deck on new piles that would, via fiberglass reinforced plastic grates, allow for ocean waters to circulate in and out.

The “perimeter deck” plan, as it is called, would not have to meet the state’s standards for a public swimming pool, something that was central to court challenges brought by the Kaimana Beach Coalition in the late 1990s that ultimately led to halting the latest round of restoration plans.

Illustration of the proposed perimeter deck plan for the natatorium. Construction of a new paved walkway would extend the existing Kapiolani Regional Park shoreline promenade from the Waikiki Aquarium to Sans Souci Beach. The promenade currently ends near the boundary between the Waikiki Aquarium and the project site.

Mufi Hannemann came into the mayor’s office in January 2005 vowing to stop spending money on repair or restoration. A task force was later formed to review alternatives to the natatorium including the possibility of tearing it down and building a replica of the archway elsewhere. In 2012, Gov. Neil Abercrombie even proposed a plan to create a beach volleyball facility.

But the Friends of the Natatorium argue that it is the actual pool — and not the beaux art archway — that honors not only the war dead but the more than 10,000 men and women from the islands who served. By allowing the natatorium to decline, the city and state “shamefully broke faith with and dishonored those World War I soldiers and sailors.”

The Kodak Hula Show circa 1950. The performers are on the lawn near the natatorium.

Hawaiian Historical Society Photograph Collection.

The Kaimana Beach Coalition, however, worries that there are those who look at the natatorium and see a potential money-maker. They worry that government officials could form a public-private partnership that could lead to the holding of concerts and hula performances.

Here is what the Coalition says on its website:

“This precious place has been the target of commercial interests for decades, and only by grassroots action has the community been able to preserve the simple elegance of this wonderful gathering place and recreational area.”

Commercialization of the natatorium is not a farfetched notion. The Waikiki Aquarium right next door rents out its facilities for oceanfront events on Tuesdays and Saturdays for $2,000 a pop.

“The mayor’s very first presentation of the new pool design referred to public-private partnerships and the EIS mentions ‘floating docks’ for ‘concerts,'” said Jim Bickerton, attorney for the Coalition.

“And will the tour buses and taxis disgorging the 2,500 tourists diminish the parking and access for the thousands of local people in Manoa, Moilili, Kapahulu, University, Palolo and Kaimuki who don’t have the funds to join Outrigger Club or Elks but would still like to get to an evening swim or paddle after work?”

After reviewing the draft EIS, the Coalition is now concerned about the use of the grate system in the new pool design. They fear it could ensnare surfers or swimmers. Other worries include the potential of stirring up all the sediment that has built up at the bottom of the existing pool.

“It’s strange that an environmental impact statement makes no mention of the 90 years worth of stagnant anaerobic silt on the floor of the natatorium and where it will all go when they finally open it to ocean currents and start driving new pilings into it,” said Bickerton.

He added, “The project seems to have been designed by preservationists, not ocean scientists or pool safety specialists.”

The Friends’ Donna Ching did not return a call for comment. Kiersten Faulkner, the Foundation’s executive director, was out of the office.

‘Place Of Innocent Refreshment’

Some may ask why a swimming pool is the appropriate way to honor war dead. Some might also point out that the War To End All Wars was a bloody, pointless mess that directly led to an even more horrendous world war only 20 years later.

Still, since 1989, the Friends have sponsored a Memorial Day Weekend observance in the nearby park while Veterans Day services have been in the same area held by VFW Post 8616. It is an important rite in an important location.

Keiki swimming at the natatorium, circa the 1930s. Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller once swam there, too.

Hawaiian Historical Society Photograph Collection

And yet, we need a solution. The other alternatives in the draft EIS are to fully rehabilitate the closed-system pool, to develop a beach protected by groins, or to do nothing at all. All three are not preferred by the city because of costs, practicality and purpose.

My take?

I prefer the beach option, but then, Sans Souci Beach is my favored swimming hole. Its French name is translated as “without a care,” and that’s how I feel when I go to Sans Souci, which everyone I know calls Kaimana, which comes from Kaimana Hila, which is another name for Diamond Head.

The Roll of Honor plaque across from the natatorium on Nov. 15, just days after the centennial marking the end of World War I.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

No matter the name, there is something special about this place, the presence of mana. As the draft EIS explains, the vicinity of the WWMC “has been the site for many cultural practices over time.”

The Foundation notes that King David Kalakaua designated crown land at the foot of Diamond Head — that is, Kapiolani Park, of which the natatorium is a part — to be “a place of innocent refreshment for all who wish to leave the dust of the town street.”

It is still that. But the natatorium in its current state is a blight. The city needs to finally take action. I urge the citizens of Honolulu to share their views on the draft EIS.

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