As the century-old Damon estate winds down this year after decades of acrimonious litigation between family members, there is one lingering controversy left behind.
What is the future of the trust’s crown jewel, Moanalua Gardens, a beautiful privately owned park in west Honolulu known for its towering monkeypod trees?
The property has a remarkable history.
Known to Hawaiians as the sacred burial ground of Oahu chiefs, it later became the setting for the gruesome House of Bones. The property housed Hawaiian alii and then a wealthy banker, Samuel Mills Damon, a finance minister to the kingdom, who left the park as a legacy to the people of Hawaii.
It became the site of the popular Prince Lot Hula Festival, held each summer, drawing thousands of spectators annually. Now it is best known as a tourist destination for Japanese visitors who go there to visit a tree made famous in Hitachi commercials.
The property, which his great-grandfather intended as a community park, is privately owned by Damon descendant J.P. Damon. He has kept it open to the public but now charges an admission fee for entry, ranging from $1 to $5 per adult. Damon also markets it as a special events venue for weddings and gatherings such as a recent woodworking show.
But Damon’s ownership has stirred controversy because he evicted the foundation that ran the hula festival and left many people wondering whether he will continue to support and maintain the garden in the same way as previous Damon descendants once the estate’s financial affairs are settled. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs intended to buy it, but the effort failed when Damon bought it for himself.
Some people applaud Damon for the time and money he has spent maintaining the property.
Damon’s “desire to preserve the gardens are a point of real gratitude to us,” said Gabriel Imaikalani Man, a student of Roddy Kamawaelualani Kawehi Akau, Moanalua’s cultural steward. “Gratitude that it’s intact, gratitude that the spirit is intact.”
Attorney Bernie Bays, who represents another of the Damon descendants, said he believes Damon has done an excellent job maintaining the park.
“Why would anyone pay their own money for a public park?” he asked. “It’s fantastic.”
Others fear what could happen to the park if Damon stopped supporting it or dies. Damon’s efforts to make money from the park add to those concerns.
“We think it should belong to the state so it can be taken care of,” said attorney Gerry Lam, a Native Hawaiian who formerly served on the board of directors of the Moanalua Garden Foundation. “Who will be there to watch it?”
Damon, 58, returned to the center of the state fight this month at a court hearing when his attorney, George Van Buren, told First Circuit Court Judge Mark Browning that Damon and his brother were considering whether they would file a substantive objection to the dissolution plan for the estate.
Van Buren suggested that Damon was unhappy about the proposed $2.5 million settlement to the ex-wife of Damon trustee David Haig.
Exasperated, Browning granted a continuance until Nov. 27, tersely reminding attorneys that the current round of litigation has been underway for more than 15 years.
None of the beneficiaries can get their final payout from the estate until the impasse is resolved.
Van Buren did not respond to requests for comment.
In a brief telephone interview, Damon said he would not discuss the most recent turn of events in the estate settlement or at Moanalua Gardens.
“I’m not willing to answer any questions,” he said. “I have to think about it.”
Moanalua Gardens has held an important place in Hawaiian history for hundreds of years.
It served as the honored burial spot of generations of Oahu chiefs and priests. Its history turned darker in the 1780s, in a time of brutal civil wars throughout the islands.
Chief Kahekili of Maui invaded and conquered Oahu, sparking a rebellion by Oahu chiefs that was ruthlessly suppressed by the new Maui overlords. A chief named Kalaikoa took revenge by ordering the construction of a house made of the bones from massacred men, women and children, placing it within the royal burial compound. It stood on a hill, visible in the flatlands below, all the way to the sea.
“At night they burned kukui nut torches, glowing, and it looked like hell,” said Lam, a lineal descendant of Hawaiian royalty, or alii, who heard stories about it from his relatives.
After receiving such cruel treatment, some Oahu residents secretly welcomed Kamehameha when he invaded Oahu a few years later. After the bloody battle at Nuuanu in 1795 Kamehameha rested at Moanalua and celebrated there with the priests who had covertly assisted his victory, Man said.
The property eventually passed into the hands of Damon’s great-grandfather, Samuel Mills Damon, a banker and financial minister to the Hawaiian kingdom. Damon inherited it from Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha, in an unusual bequest that allowed crown lands to pass to him and his descendants in perpetuity.
At that time the tract covered thousands of acres and two valleys that ran from the Koolau mountain range down to the sea, west of downtown Honolulu. The area now houses Tripler Army Medical Center, Mapunapuna, Salt Lake, parts of the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and the surviving 24-acre garden property.
Samuel Mills Damon moved to Moanalua in 1890, taking up residence in the summer cottage of King Kamehameha V. Damon, an avid horticulturalist, was inspired by the great gardens he had seen on a trip to England.
In 1908, a tourist to Hawaii described the garden in the pages of the Honolulu Evening Bulletin, commenting on its “delightful landscape effects,” and calling it “the prettiest place” she had seen in all Oahu.
As the elder Damon approached the end of his life, he placed Moanalua Gardens at the forefront of his will, voicing a simple and express desire to make the garden his lasting legacy to the people of Hawaii.
Damon asked that his beloved garden estate be preserved “for the recreation and enjoyment of the public,” with funds from the trust to be devoted to the “maintenance, upkeep, repair, improvement, extension, further development, care and protection” of the property, but he left it to the trustees to decide how and whether to do it.
After Damon’s death, much of the land was chopped up and turned over to development, either as a result of government condemnation by the military or to for-profit commercial and residential development.
After Samuel Mills Damon died, his daughter-in-law, a Scottish woman named Gertrude MacKinnon Damon, took control of the property, embracing its Hawaiian history. Gertrude’s children, in turn, took responsibility for maintaining the garden, spending their own money to do so.
In 1970, Frances M. “Patches” Damon and Harriett Baldwin, two of Gertrude’s daughters, founded a nonprofit called the Moanalua Gardens Foundation, incorporated by the state, to preserve and protect the prehistoric and cultural history of the Hawaiian Islands and to promote the use of Moanalua for the recreational use of the general public.
The foundation, based at the garden, was financially supported by members of the Damon family, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in employing workers and maintaining the grounds.
In the public eye, the foundation and the park were interwoven. In the early 1970s, the Moanalua Gardens Foundation was the organization that backed the Damon granddaughters when they forced the U.S. Department of Transportation to move H-3 away from the Moanalua Valley.
In 1978, the gardens became the venue of the popular annual Prince Lot Hula Festival. Hula dancers from across Hawaii performed under the shady monkeypod trees, on a hula mound designed and built for that purpose. Thousands of Hawaii residents danced there over the years before audiences of tens of thousands.
But the clock was ticking for the Damon estate, a real estate empire that, under the terms of the trust, had to be liquidated after the death of Damon’s last surviving grandchild. The death of Joan Damon Haig in 2004 started the process.
The 3,716-acre valley was sold by the Damon estate to the Trust for Public Land and the state and is now managed by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, but it soon became apparent that no specific legal provisions had been made to transfer the garden officially into the hands of the foundation or to provide for its financial support.
The board members and employees of the foundation were particularly unsettled about the future. According to affidavits filed in a subsequent lawsuit by board members Alexander Jamile, president of the foundation, and Charles Cooke IV, the former president, the directors of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation “acted and understood” that they were the owners of the garden. But they had no records or documents establishing that right, they said.
Many people began wondering what would happen to the garden.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs sought to buy the property to place it under Hawaiian control but legal impediments made it difficult to do quickly. Oswald Stender, a former OHA trustee, said he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the purchase but was outbid by a Damon family insider.
“One of the Damons wanted it,” Stender said in an interview, calling OHA’s failure to secure the property a disappointment.
J.P. Damon bought the garden in 2007 for about $5 million, according to news reports at the time, which lauded him for his plans to keep the park open to the public and take on the cost of maintaining it.
“The gardens have always been a part of my life,” Damon said at the time. “I am honored to be taking on this responsibility to the community.”
In their lawsuit, the directors of the foundation said they were surprised to learn the garden had been transferred to Damon personally.
Damon quickly negotiated a 10-year agreement with Hitachi Ltd., giving the Japanese conglomerate the exclusive rights to use its iconic tree in its advertising for $400,000 a year, a contract that was renewed in 2017. The transaction was expected to help defray the costs of maintaining the property.
Eventually tensions rose between the foundation and Damon. Damon had begun charging admission to the park. The foundation’s directors believed they had a right to the land as owners because of their long-time tenancy and oversight of the park but Damon said he was the owner.
He took legal action to evict the foundation that had been founded by his aunts.
“We do not believe you have any right to be on the property,” Damon’s lawyer, Van Buren, wrote in 2015, according to documents filed in a lawsuit.
The Moanalua Gardens Foundation filed its own lawsuit in response but it was dismissed. The foundation was forced to move off the grounds and relocated to offices on Dillingham Boulevard.
Stender said the outcome was disturbing to Hawaiians.
“They kicked the Moanalua foundation off the property, the people who do the Prince Lot hula festival,” Stender said.
Two years later, the Prince Lot hula festival was forced to relocate from its longtime home there to the grounds of Iolani Palace. Foundation managing director Pauline Worsham told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Damon had asked for more than $47,000 rent for the two-day event, which is free to the public.
In an interview, Pauline Worsham, the foundation’s managing director, said that Damon also tried to claim personal ownership of the hula festival.
“We’ve been trying to move forward from this situation,” she said.
Learning that Moanalua Park is actually privately owned seems a startling fact to many people in Hawaii, even long-time residents.
“I thought it was like Ala Moana Park,” said attorney Thomas Sylvester, who was involved in Damon litigation in the past. “I was born and raised here. I thought it belonged to the people of Hawaii.”
Some Hawaiian groups hope that one day that the state or a public trust will buy the park and it can be placed under Hawaiian stewardship.
“We really want to have a cultural center there and have it be something everyone gets on board for,” Man said.
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