The town’s historic preservation group is considering plans to reconstruct some buildings that partially survived the Aug. 8 fire.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the passage of the National Preservation Act in 1966 caused the creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust was created earlier and is a separate non-profit organization. The Act created the National Register of Historic Places.

The leaders of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the preservation group that rebuilt Lahaina’s historic areas six decades ago, believe that much of historic Lahaina can be restored.

After all, they resurrected Lahaina once before.

While the scope of the disaster almost defies belief and has left members of the organization shattered and saddened, they have examined video and aerial footage of the dozen or so historic buildings and properties they manage and believe that quite a few of them, though perhaps not all, are salvageable.

Can they be rebuilt?

“That’s our plan, that’s our plan,” said Theo Morrison, the foundation’s executive director.

Honolulu Civil Beat reporter Kirstin Downey, from left, interviews Lahaina Restoration Foundation executive director Theo Morrison Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in Wailuki. The historic town of Lahaina was destroyed by an Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Honolulu Civil Beat reporter Kirstin Downey, left, interviews Lahaina Restoration Foundation leaders Theo Morrison, center, and Kimberly Flook in their makeshift new offices, where they are planning a rebuilding strategy for Lahaina’s fire-ravaged historic buildings. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Many buildings, of course, suffered terribly in the conflagration on Aug. 8, the worst wildfire in America in a century.

But other buildings and sites the foundation manages remarkably survived the flames unscathed, they report. That includes Hale Pai, where the first Hawaiian language newspaper was printed and the Plantation Museum at the Lahaina Cannery.

The grounds under the foundation’s supervision, meanwhile, include the famous Lahaina banyan tree, whose survival was one of the few bright notes in the early coverage of the fire.

Some very historic properties they don’t oversee, including the cemetery at the Waiola Church, where Queen Keopuolani of Maui and King Kaumualii of Kauai are buried, was also untouched by the fire, Morrison said.

Baldwin Museum before the Aug. 8 wildfire.
Baldwin Museum after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Credit: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

Experts on historic preservation also believe that some or all of the buildings could be rebuilt.

“It has been done,” wrote Andrew Scott Dolkart, professor of historic preservation at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, in an email.

He said that when Notre Dame’s roof burned and collapsed in 2019, “there were all kinds of proposals for modern interventions, but a decision was made to reconstruct the roof as it had been.”

He said that some entire cities destroyed by fire, including parts of Warsaw and Dresden, both leveled by firebombing and systematic destruction during World War II, have been reconstructed. In the case of Dresden, he said, the city’s large church was reconstructed by incorporating the surviving stones.

“Elements of those buildings can be saved,” said Matthew Webster, executive director of Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, who viewed before and after pictures of the properties.

In addition, he said, the buildings could be reconstructed “exactly the same as they were, absolutely.”

He said that the design features of the historic buildings in Lahaina had been so carefully documented that architects would have all the information they need to recreate them.

He said that of 600 structures at Colonial Williamsburg, only about 90 are considered original, but that many others incorporate the remaining foundations or are exhibited with the visible signs of fire damage they suffered still visible to visitors.

“Lots and lots of places have rebuilt,” he said. “One extreme is Pompeii. It was completely wiped out by a natural disaster.”

Masters Reading Room before the Aug. 8 wildfire.
Masters Reading Room after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Credit: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

A History Worth Saving

Lahaina has had a vivid history. Maui is the ancestral home of Queen Keopuolani, the sacred wife of King Kamehameha and the mother of his two royal heirs, Kamehameha II and III.

She moved back to Lahaina from Honolulu in 1823, bringing a handful of Tahitian and American missionaries in tow. She became an enthusiastic advocate for literacy and was interested in learning more about the Christian faith. That eventually led to the creation of the Lahainaluna School and the printing house.

One of the two American missionaries who came with Keopuolani, Charles Stewart, called Lahaina at that time “more beautiful than any place we have yet seen on the islands.” He described flowing streams, ponds and lush foliage, likening it to “the delights of an Eden.”

Lahaina soon became a whaling capital, a place where sailors from around the globe headed for rest, relaxation and female companionship after long and dangerous months spent on voyages in frigid waters. That industry died, however, when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania and the world shifted to fossil fuels.

Only Hawaiians and a few white people lived there permanently in that era.

Replacement industries soon emerged as the sugar and then pineapple plantations took hold, consuming huge tracts of land surrounding Lahaina. Sugar and pineapple plantations recruited around the world for employees, and Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese newcomers arrived in the islands and came to call Maui home.

But while many people found employment in agriculture, sugar proved to be a relentless consumer of water. The clear streams and ponds that had kept Lahaina cool and verdant were shifted to industrial uses. One plantation alone, Pioneer Mill, eventually came to devour 120 million gallons of water per day, according to a 2006 book written by former Foundation executive director Jim Luckey.

Over time, that led to accelerated drought conditions.

Even though sugar industry leaders did things that injured the island, many of them also loved Lahaina and worried that shifting attitudes toward protective taxes for American products would eventually led to the death of the industry.

They promoted the growth of tourist development on the Kaanapali coast but were also wary for Lahaina’s future amid the influx. They began looking for things that could preserve Lahaina’s unique history and atmosphere.

They saw tourism and historic rehabilitation in Lahaina as possibly symbiotic. Historic museums and sites in Lahaina could also provide a destination for tourists looking for things to do while they were on vacation.

With support from local business leaders, Maui County embarked on a study of the Lahaina area, published in 1959, and soon passed ordinances protecting two separate but adjoining historic districts in Lahaina. They also created a Maui Historic Commission, a nine-member board that monitored development proposals for their effects on historic properties.

In 1962, a community group formed to try to rehabilitate the decaying structures that had been identified as significant and worth saving. They called themselves the Lahaina Restoration Committee, and later the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, according to Luckey.

They joined a groundswell of historic preservation advocates across the country who were lobbying for better protection of America’s significant sites. That resulted in the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which created the National Register of Historic Places.

Many of the historic buildings in Lahaina were in a serious state of disrepair. The Seaman’s Hospital, for example, which had been a health care center of last resort for sick and dying sailors cast adrift in the islands, had become little more than “pile of rocks” by the time it was rebuilt, said Kimberly Flook, the foundation’s deputy executive director.

The rehabilitation process in Lahaina took more than two decades of painstaking effort, working building by building.

Old Lahaina Courthouse before the Aug. 8 wildfire.
Old Lahaina Courthouse after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Credit: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

But by last year, the restoration work seemed so thoroughly complete that the Lahaina Restoration Foundation considered changing its name, to reflect the historic mission and to minimize the word “restoration.”

“There was a big debate; too many people were attached to our name,” Morrison said. “So we kept our name. And guess what? We are back restoring Lahaina. It is kind of funny. Ironic is the word for it.”

Now the work needs to start all over again.

To be sure, many historic buildings in Lahaina have been terribly damaged and are in much worse repair than they were in the 1960s. In some cases, only the walls have survived.

“They are basically just boxes now, without lids,” Flook said.

Stone Is A Solid Foundation

The saving grace for many of the old buildings is that their walls were built of coral, lava or stone, many of them constructed with what Luckey had called “gravity” walls, a building innovation developed by the Hawaiians, which involves placing the right-shaped stones atop one another. That is the same technique used in many heiaus, he wrote in his book, “Luckey Come Hawaii.”

Some of the walls are still standing at the Baldwin House, the oldest house on Maui; the Old Lahaina Courthouse, once Lahaina’s government center, and the Masters Reading Room, a salon used by whaling ship captains to catch up on news from New England.

The Wo Hing Museum and Cook House, on the other hand, was made entirely of wood and has disintegrated. Little is left of the Old Lahaina Prison, either.

The foundation, formerly headquartered in the Baldwin House, has taken up its new offices in a former plantation house near the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum in Puunene.

Morrison and Flook are working at makeshift tables and desks, busily taking and making calls, and hatching plans for the future.

They believe they have lost most of the buildings’ contents, however, all the items made of paper, cloth or wood. They don’t know for sure because they have not been permitted to enter the disaster area to examine the sites for themselves.

Wo Hing Museum before the Aug. 8 wildfire.
Wo Hing Museum after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Credit: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

One particularly tragic loss was a Hawaiian flag that had flown over the Lahaina post office and was taken down on the day of the kingdom’s overthrow, carefully kept by a family who recognized its symbolic importance and was donated to the foundation.

On the morning of Aug. 8, the framed flag was hanging in the Old Courthouse building in Lahaina. That structure’s wooden elements and contents burned to the ground that day, despite its tiled roof.

Morrison said they believe that embers from the fire lodged in the eaves of the building and the roof collapsed, with the second floor crashing into the first floor and then both collapsing onto the basement.

Their archives collection has been destroyed, along with a large collection of vintage and antique books about Maui’s history. They are seeking book donations to replace volumes that are lost forever.

One big and valuable collection has already been donated to the foundation. The family of Maui journalist and author Laurel Murphy, who died a few years ago, has contributed her collection of vintage and antique books about the island that she collected in preparation for a book she was writing about the Baldwin dynasty and their impact on Hawaii.

It was a heart-warming gift for Morrison, who formerly worked in a book-lined office filled with historic tomes about Maui. She had been given a bookcase for the new location, and until the Murphy gift, the bookcase was almost entirely empty.

One stroke of luck was that the Baldwin House was already being renovated when the fire struck, Morrison said. She said that they had bought $8,000 in shingles, but they were waiting in a warehouse on Oahu on Aug. 8.

“Now we can get them assuming we have building permits,” she said. “Now we don’t just need to just re-roof, we also need to put the beams back.”

They recognize that the road ahead will involve difficult decisions. Rising sea levels are calling for a managed retreat from the coast. The soil in Lahaina may be toxic for some time to come.

The effort will be extremely expensive, too, and the Lahaina Restoration Foundation isn’t sure where it will find that money. Donations are starting to flow in for the effort, although Morrison declined to say how much.

“We’re getting a lot but we have huge needs,” she said. “Building a house is a lot different than restoring a historic building.”

And meanwhile they continue to weather the trauma of loss. Morrison’s house was rendered uninhabitable by the fire and she is living in temporary quarters. Five of their 20 board members lost their homes outright.

“Everybody is dealing with the crisis,” Morrison said. “We all know that dealing with the restoration will be a very long process.”

Webster, the historic preservationist from Colonial Williamsburg, said that the community should take the time it needs to decide how best to preserve and memorialize those sites, and that now the fire has become one more chapter in the dramatic history of Lahaina.

“While fresh and devastating, it’s part of the story, showing the resiliency of the community,” he said. “We write history every day and this is part of it.”

Old Lahaina Prison before the Aug. 8 wildfire.
Old Lahaina Prison after the Aug. 8 wildfire. (Credit: Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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