story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Franco Salmoiraghi
I couldn't have chosen a worse day. A winter cold front is assaulting the Islands, pushing ahead of it the season's meanest storm yet. I am in the middle of a cow pasture in the high, exposed ranch lands near Waimea, on the Big Island. Roaring wind drives rags of mist across a mournful landscape. Every few moments a door opens in the walls of vapor, revealing green hills rolling away like waves on a slate-gray sea. Distant cows hunch, little boats huddling against the weather.
I've climbed two barbed-wire fences, traipsed through fields of waist-high grass. My clothes and boots are waterlogged. It's freezing. I'm disoriented. Then, on the crest of a hill, half-shrouded in the phantom light, the ruin appears. From here it's nothing but a scree of collapsed lava rocks and one remnant wall, an upright column like the mast of a lost ship on the weather-torn sea.
It was once a house, built in the 1830s by William Purdy, who came from Ireland to become, along with partner John Palmer Parker, one of the Big Island's most renowned cattlemen. Like many buildings constructed in the years following Western contact, it used rubble-and-mortar construction: Lava boulders were formed into walls and plastered over with putty lime mortar (the lime obtained from ground coral). By contemporary Mainland or European standards, it was a crude way to build, but it made good use of local material, and it withstood Hawai‘i's variable weather. Purdy died in the late 1880s the house was abandoned, and the rough elements of the high country set to work. The roof caved in, the walls collapsed. Nothing remains except the stone and plaster. If a road once passed here, it is long buried. Today the house is, like dozens of other modern ruins scattered throughout the Hawaiian Islands, a marvellous heap.
Despite the weather's violence, an otherworldly calm pervades these lichen-enamelled stones. I enter what were once rooms slowly, with respect. Those who love ruins know that the past still inhabits them, if only in the imagination. That's partly why we visit them. We enter a ruin as we might a welcoming stranger's house, careful not to disturb anything, grateful for the hospitality.
Entranced by the somber, sculptural beauty, I forget the damp and explore. Entering what was perhaps the family room, I find a pile of rubble that must have been the hearth, and beside it an alcove lined with tightly packed red bricks„storage for dry firewood? Recessed into the wall above the hearth is the only surviving piece of wood, a fragment of the mantelpiece. I pause to touch it; this is as close as I'm going to get to the people who once lived here. Suddenly, it's easy to reinvent them, on a day just like this, a century and a half ago.
That places like the Purdy house exist in Hawai‘i today is, to me, a happy surprise. Even on densely packed O‘ahu it is easy to find relics of bygone ages: the chimney of an 1863 sugar mill at Kualoa, the skeleton of a boys' reform school on the North Shore, the decaying walls of King Kamehameha III's summer residence, among many others. Some are well-known, often visited and even maintained. Some have been restored„but then, of course, they're no longer ruined and so lose their spectral beauty. But many of the most haunting ruins are those completely neglected, spared demolition only because they stand on protected state lands or on the property of private landowners who can't or won't assume the cost of dismantling them.