The plan still needs final approval, but community members say it’s part of their history and want the university to reconsider.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are simmering at the prospect that a historic mosaic on the campus of Brigham Young University-Hawaii could be damaged during a redevelopment project.

Plans include the demolition of the David O. McKay Center which has significant structural problems, President John Kauwe III said on the university’s website in March.

Above the entrance to the building is a mosaic depicting McKay, the former LDS president, surrounded by Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino and mainlander children saluting the American flag at the site of the Laie Elementary School.

A 1921 photograph of McKay and the children directly inspired the artwork. McKay, during a tour of the Pacific region, was touched by the children’s allegiance to the flag and envisioned a school of higher learning would be built.

Mosaic BYU McKay Auditorium Laie controversy
Plans that involve the removal of the mosaic at BYU’s David O. McKay Center in Laie have raised the ire of some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

He returned in 1958 to dedicate the complex and the mosaic, which was shipped from Italy in pieces and installed in 10 days, church history says.

The university said it will preserve “significant portions of the mosaic,” but locals contend their history is at risk if the entire mosaic is not kept intact. 

Verla Moore, Laie Community Association president, said she doesn’t oppose campus redevelopment but the community wants clarification about the artwork’s future.

Some descendants of children in the scene still reside in Laie, creating a sense of ownership over the mosaic’s future, Moore said.

“This community helped build this college,” she said.

Faith Ako said the mosaic depicts a watershed moment in the town and university’s history. She grew up in Laie and splits her time between the community and California.

“For us, it depicts how it all began,” Ako said.

Mataumu Alisa, a retired art faculty member at the university, proposed creating a replica of the mosaic if the original can’t be kept intact. He said preserving or replicating the mosaic honors the labor of missionaries who installed it.

BYU-Hawaii spokeswoman Laura Tevaga said the university has held multiple meetings to address the community’s concerns and is factoring in the feedback. University officials hope to move the saved portions to a future welcome center.

“It is an important monument for us,” Tevaga said, but “it wasn’t made to be moved.”

Mosaic BYU McKay Auditorium Laie controversy
The mosaic depicts a moment captured in a 1921 photograph that led to the creation of the BYU-Hawaii campus. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Carmael Stagner is concerned parts of the mosaic will be sacrificed because of political sensitivities over its depiction of McKay enraptured by Americanized Pacific Islander and Asian children.

The university disputed this in a statement on its website, saying it takes direction from religious doctrine.

An informal June 7 meeting was intended to provide the community with updates, but Stagner said little detail was provided about the mosaic’s future.

Stagner, a self-described “card carrying Mormon,” said the artwork has religious value for commemorating McKay’s vision for faith-based higher learning.

The campus redesign process has been slow, Tevaga said, and the McKay complex’s demolition is only part of a wider revitalization campaign to “future-proof the university for the next 50 years.” It will address flood-zone problems, update parts of the campus dating from the 1950s and still requires final approval from BYU’s Board of Trustees.

Tevaga expects a draft proposal will be available later this summer.

Despite changing times, Ako still hopes to preserve what came before.

“Everything is changing, so the community wants to save something still.”

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