The War Memorial Natatorium stands on the shore of Waikiki, ostensibly Hawaii’s official expression of gratitude to sons and daughters who served and died in a horrendous global war.

It has been a cultural and historic landmark since 1927, honoring more than 10,000 World War I soldiers, sailors and other volunteers from Hawaii. But in its current state — a shuttered, decaying, nearly abandoned state monument to heroes — it dishonors us more than it honors them.

Now, however, may at last be the natatorium’s time. There is a serious, exciting proposal on the table, called the “perimeter deck.” It’s a proposal that would preserve the war memorial and reopen its swim basin. It would resolve a long, long impasse more economically, safely and responsibly than any alternative.

We can get this done. But it will take action. More on that in a moment. First, let’s review.
The beaux-arts arches and façade are the War Memorial’s skin. The heart of it — now only glimpsed through a padlocked gate — is the swim basin.

The entrance to the natatorium pool. The author says the swimming pool should be restored in order to honor military veterans.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Since 1921, when the territorial legislature authorized its construction, the “ocean pool” has been the key to the magic and majesty of the place. The swim basin was — and was intended by legislative action to be — a living memorial, a place where descendants enjoy the freedom that World War I volunteers fought to preserve.

It’s a place where keiki learned to swim for generations, where ohana gathered, where world and Olympic swimming champions competed and set records.

Closed Since 1979

Then, dilapidated by neglect, the natatorium closed in 1979. Ever since, those who have loved the place — locals, veterans, swimmers, preservationists and many others — have sought to repair and reopen it.

The City and County of Honolulu is at last on the verge of completing a new environmental impact study and committing to a way forward on the natatorium. At the study’s beginning, the only alternatives under consideration were:

  1. do nothing and let a historic war memorial keep decaying;
  2. rebuild the swimming venue as a (prohibitively expensive) closed pool with filters and pumps; or,
  3. raze it and replace it with a beach and replica arches.

Natatorium advocates opposed all three alternatives. They insisted that the city also consider a fourth, viable, economical preservation option.

The city, to its credit, eventually agreed. The fourth alternative was the perimeter deck, which would largely restore the look and functionality of the original natatorium. Under the waterline, though, a new design would allow a much freer circulation of ocean water, preserving water quality without the need for those expensive pumps and filters.

The city’s draft environmental impact statement is now out for comment. In that draft, the city selects the perimeter deck as the preferred option.

The study that led to the draft EIS concluded that perimeter deck alternative:

  • is safest for swimmers, shoreline and the Marine Conservation District;
  • costs less than demolishing the memorial and building a new beach;
  • flushes ocean water frequently, resulting in water quality the same as the adjacent ocean;
  • adds no new development to the existing built footprint in Waikiki; and
  • is capable of securing all needed permits (much) faster than demolition (which faces possibly insurmountable legal obstacles regarding preservation and environmental protection).

Safety Is Important

Opponents of natatorium preservation argue that there are questions about the perimeter deck proposal still to be answered. True. The draft EIS presents all alternatives (demolition/beach included) in just conceptual form. Detailed development of the prevailing concept happens later, during the design stage.

So, yes, safety — raised in Civil Beat last week by an advocate of demolition — will be an important question during detailed design. It always is. Design engineers will address it.

Last week’s writer also suggested that natatorium sediment is a potential problem. What he does not say is that exactly the same problem arises if you tear down the natatorium to build a beach. There was an approved solution to the sediment issue as long ago as the late-1990s.

Paddle boarders at the natatorium, 1940.

Collection of Ian Lind

Last week’s writer also conjures a bogeyman to scare potential natatorium supporters. He writes on his website that “hypothetically” (quoting from the site), a rebuilt natatorium would be inappropriately commercialized in a public-private partnership.

To be clear: We do not advocate commercialization. The public-private partnership we advocate is generous private philanthropy to supplement public funds for natatorium renovation. Already, there is considerable interest in assisting the city with substantial private donations.

Yes, once the natatorium reopens, the city may seek non-profit partners to operate it. If it does, the city controls the terms. Commercial use could — and, if it is the will of the community, should — be restricted.

There are no more living World War I veterans. Do their deaths cancel our debt to them? No; in fact, their passing makes it even more urgent that we reopen their memorial.

This historic site, named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is a place to teach new generations about what brave men and women from Hawaii did during one of the most momentous events in human history.

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

Wikimedia Commons

And we need to honor those men and women — and all veterans — by swimming there once again.

You will have the opportunity to learn more on this week’s episode of Insights on PBS Hawaii, Thursday, Dec. 6, at 8 p.m.

We urge you to watch, consider carefully, and then write the city in support of the draft environmental impact statement and the preferred perimeter deck option.

Tell the city you do not favor dumping a landmark into a landfill.

To learn how to submit comments on the draft EIS, go to natatorium.org/eis-comments.

Editor’s note: This article’s co-authors are Kiersten Faulkner, executive director, Historic Hawaii Foundation; Coline Kaualoku-a-Maiti Aiu, kumu hula, hālau hula o maiki, kuhina nui, Daughters and Sons of the Hawaiian Warriors-MĀMAKAKAUA; Sonny Tanabe, 1956 U.S. Olympic swimmer; Keith Arakaki, Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame inductee, head coach, Hawaii Swim Club; Stanley Y. Fernandez, Hawaii member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Council of Administration; Gordon Lee, Kau Tom Post 11, American Legion; Curtis A. “Manny” Manchester, veteran; John Flanagan, head coach, Kamehameha Swim Club; and Brian Keaulana, waterman and ocean safety professional.

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About the Author

  • Mo Radke
    Mo Radke is president of the Friends of the Natatorium. A 30-year Navy veteran, he serves as chair of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, council member for DLNR’s Kaneohe Bay Regional Council, past president of the Rotary Club of Waikiki and Hawaii coordinator and instructor for Wounded Warrior and PTSD golf therapy clinics.