The Waikīkī Natatorium is hallowed ground as a war memorial, an international symbol of competitive swimming and an important icon in Hawaiian history. Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku swam the inaugural lap at the Natatorium on his birthday in 1927, placing Hawaiʻi at the center of the sport of swimming. Through the years, many other Olympians, celebrated swimmers, and watermen followed in the Duke’s wake. Generations of Hawaiʻi’s children learned to swim in its waters; it was one of Waikīkī’s most beloved gathering places. Respected kupuna Nana Veary worked as a lifeguard matron and lived there for a time with her husband, 3 children, and 21 boys she had hānai or adopted as her own, many of whom went on to become celebrated beach boys.
Efforts to preserve the Natatorium mālama Hawaiʻi’s ocean sports and swimming legacy and honor the commitment made to remember those who served in our nation’s military during WWI. But a recent newspaper column argued that demolition and change of use of that shoreline is in the public interest and less expensive than restoration. I do not agree.
The City under Mayor Jeremy Harris spent $4.2 million restoring the façade, bathrooms, and volleyball court. The Honolulu City Council provided financing to finish the restoration of the bleachers and pool. But the succeeding mayoral administration under Mufi Hanneman stunned many of us by reversing the fully designed and permitted restoration, and went into high gear to demolish the entire structure. The spirit of irreverence with which demolition was pursued bordered on disrespecting the memory of the fallen warriors honored there. Auwē!
The Natatorium serves as a sand retention revetment which created Sans Souci beach. Demolish the Natatorium and Sans Souci is history. Alternative uses like creating additional new beach or volleyball courts are not permitted shoreline uses and would have to survive a lengthy and daunting county, state, and federal permitting process, not to mention court challenges. The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court in 1973 ruled against demolition for any other use of the shoreline expect for a Natatorium (defined as a swimming pool in Act 15 of the Territorial Legislature, 1921). The cost of demolition to effect the new uses proposed, even if successful, rivals the cost of restoration. So much for the financial argument that it’s cheaper to demolish. Further, the structure sits in a declared marine sanctuary. How far will they get with the demolition-triggered reef damage? A new beach, according to an Army Corps of Engineers study, would require replacing the Natatorium with the equivalent of a three-wall small boat harbor replicating the same footprint of the Natatorium walls. Go figure! Proposals to “preserve” the arch by moving it is not an engineering possibility. It will have to be re-built as a facsimile. So much for preservation. Finally, hundreds of pages of scientific and expert studies including a $1.2 million environmental impact statement show the least expensive, least environmentally harmful option is full restoration.
The idea of demolishing the Natatorium ranks up there with the attempts to demolish ʻIolani Palace for a parking lot and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for a new high rise hotel. The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is the last of the great historic treasures of the Waikiki shoreline. How we respond to this challenge will mark the greatness or failure of who we are as a people.