State and federal historic preservationists agree that Lahaina’s historic sector can be rebuilt.

The Lahaina Restoration Foundation is forging ahead with plans to protect and rebuild historic structures in the fire-ravaged town, cheered by support from state archaeologists and historic preservation experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We were very happy to see that, their endorsement of that,” said Theo Morrison, the foundation’s executive director, who said that county, state and federal officials have all voiced agreement on the significance of Lahaina’s historic places.

Money for the foundation’s efforts, meanwhile, is flooding in. It’s raised $500,000 in contributions, all from individual donations. The foundation is also seeking larger pools of grant money as well, with some government officials indicating that federal and state funding could be made available. Much more is needed.

Old Lahaina Store, following Aug. 8 fire
The Old Lahaina Store, built in 1916, is still standing. It is one of the commercial structures that state officials have identified as being in a salvageable state. It formerly housed the restaurant Fleetwood’s on Front Street. (Courtesy of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources)

This month the foundation is seeking to jumpstart the town’s revival by restoring a popular annual tradition, the Lahaina poster contest. This year’s theme will be Remembering Lahaina. It is a competition for original artwork, including photos, paintings, drawings, pastels or other art forms, that depict the essence of the town that was, not the burned-out debris field it is today.

The winning entry will become a poster that the foundation will sell online. Longtime Maui artist George Allan will judge the entries. The 2024 competition will be conducted online, with entry information to be made available on the foundation’s website. To broaden the applicant pool, the foundation will be accepting entries from anywhere in the world, using artwork created at any time prior to the fire, officials said.

Lahaina has a storied history. The ancestral home of high-ranking Hawaiian alii, it housed a sacred compound known as Mokuula. It became a whaling center in the 1800s and then the base for sugar plantations that drew workers from all over the world, diversifying the population. Iconic sites and buildings from each era survived and together they form two separate historic districts in Lahaina.

The foundation was created in 1962 by historic preservation advocates to restore the town’s then-dilapidated civic architecture. The group spent the next three decades rehabilitating numerous structures. The organization now manages 14 historic sites, including six museums and three significant green spaces. They are also the caretakers of the famous downtown banyan tree.

Almost all the buildings were badly damaged in the fire. But, as the ban on entry to the site ends, more specific details are coming to light about what was destroyed, what remains and what is in jeopardy.

Green leaves have already sprouted on the banyan tree, and foundation officials recently learned that the 18 wooden benches under the tree all survived, probably because they were constructed of ipe wood, which they selected for its sturdiness, but is also surprisingly fire resistant.

Top on the foundation’s to-do list now is shoring up the beams on the historic Baldwin House, where the wooden door lintels burned away, which could cause surviving walls to collapse and further damage the building.

“That is very much in danger of falling down because there is no support for it,” Morrison said.

She said the foundation is working with a contractor to start the work as soon as they can gain entry to the site and secure building approvals. They hope to get an emergency, expedited building permit so the work can begin as quickly as possible.

The walls of the historic Baldwin House are in danger of collapsing if work to brace them does not begin soon, according to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation
The remarkable survival of the Baldwin House is in jeopardy now because the wooden lintels holding up doors and windows burned in the fire and walls are at risk of collapsing. The view here, taken from what was Dr. Baldwin’s dispensary, looks across to the island of Lanai. (Courtesy of Lahaina Restoration Foundation)

The Baldwin House, built in 1834, is the oldest house on Maui. Queen Keopuolani had invited Tahitian, Hawaiian and American missionaries to join her in Lahaina in 1823, and at her death, ordered that her children be raised as Christians. With this royal backing, the house was built as a missionary compound. It is named for Rev. Dwight Baldwin, a Harvard-trained medical doctor who cared for patients on Maui, Molokai and Lanai. He is credited with organizing a far-reaching smallpox inoculation program that saved many island residents during an 1853 epidemic that killed thousands on the other Hawaiian islands.

In the weeks following the devastating fire on Aug. 8, foundation officials sought pictures of the ruins of the properties they managed to try to determine the extent of the damage. They also consulted outside historic preservation experts who told them they thought some or many of the properties could be rebuilt.

In late September, more encouraging news came from the State Historic Preservation Division of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, after a team of historic preservationists gained entry to tour the historic areas and agreed that the most notable of the structures could be rehabilitated.

In a video statement, archaeologist Alan Downer, SHPD administrator, indicated he was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the damage was not irredeemable.

“In the first photographs I saw it seemed like everything was gone and that’s not really the case,” Downer said. “There are buildings there, important historic buildings, that I think can be repaired.”

In fact, he said, “all the iconic buildings look like they can be restored,” including some of the commercial buildings.

He said he was “impressed by the stone structures,” and said he believed “there seems to be a lot of structural integrity.”

He cautioned that the work was beyond simple rehabilitation, however, as “it’s a much bigger job than that.”

But he said that if the community wants to go forward and restoration funds can be secured, he was optimistic about what could be achieved.

“If we can find the money and people really want it, it can be restored,” he said.

Downer pledged the department’s support. He noted that the Lahaina area has been occupied by humans for a thousand years, and that in addition to the historic structures, there are also significant archaeological sites.

“We will certainly advocate for preservation,” he said. “We will work to the extent we can, to preserve all that.”

Maui County has placed signs in front of at least a dozen buildings, according to DLNR officials, identifying the sites as requiring “the highest level of care,” and that anyone seeking to access the site should be accompanied by a cultural monitor.

Signs identifying historic properties have been placed on Lahaina structures
About a dozen buildings in Lahaina have been identified as requiring special protection, according to state officials. (Courtesy Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources)

Chelsea Klein, FEMA’s lead environmental planning and historic preservation advisor for Lahaina, was also part of the historic preservation team. In the DLNR video, she said she agreed that many of the structures can be rehabilitated, partly because they were built so well in the beginning.

“Historic structures were built better, stronger,” she said, adding that modern structures are more often built with planned obsolescence in mind.

She said FEMA will be able to provide people with the “right expertise” to work on the rebuilding.

Some FEMA money may be available as well. Asked about historic preservation funding, FEMA spokesman Mike Peacock highlighted a recent news release from the agency that indicated that private, non-profit organizations can be reimbursed for the expense of emergency protective measures they take to protect properties damaged in a disaster. The deadline for applications is Oct. 25.

Much money will be needed, “in the millions,” Morrison said.

The foundation has insurance coverage, Morrison said, which will also be helpful in making repairs but is not likely to cover all the costs. She said the foundation is still awaiting word on insurance coverage from its carrier.

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