Issue 10.3: June / July 2007

New Life for an American Icon

story by Curt Sanburn

It's a case of poignant timing. On Dec. 1, 2006, news broke that the venerable Mauna Kea Beach Hotel would close indefinitely after suffering damage from a 6.7-magnitude earthquake that rattled the state on Oct. 15.

Two months later, the prestigious American Institute of Architects (AIA) released its list of the 150 structures voted "America's Favorite Architecture" by 1,800 randomly selected Americans. #1 on the list was the Empire State Building. The Golden Gate Bridge was #5. At #55, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (the only Hawai‘i building to make the list) beat out New York's Rockefeller Center (#56), LA's Getty Center (#95) and Houston's Astrodome (#134).

A cynic might argue that the whole idea is nothing but architecture's answer to American Idol. And yet, the Mauna Kea made the list. Apparently, it occupies a higher feel-good place in the random American's mind than New York's iconic Plaza Hotel (#81). As AIA president R.K. Stewart put it: "When you ask people to select their favorites ... they choose buildings that hold a place in their hearts."

The original hotel building, developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller and designed by the noted New York-based firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, was a rigorous, rectilinear study in textured concrete, set on the magnificent cove beach at Kauna‘oa along the then-empty Kohala coast of Hawai‘i island. Massive pillars held aloft just 154 rooms stacked in three stepped tiers. The tiers hovered high enough above the surrounding kiawe thickets to command the rugged coast like a modernist/ primitivist temple.

The luxury hotel opened in 1965 to rapturous reviews. Esquire called it "the greatest resort hotel on earth." "It is an Olympian thing that has been done," said Holiday. The AIA itself conferred an Honor Award on the building, noting its "restrained detailing and fine spatial sequences."

Entertainer Nani Lim has been performing at the Mauna Kea since age 12, when she danced with a troupe called the Mauna Kea Sweethearts. "The hotel holds its own in terms of elegance and spirit," she says. "It's like when I go to Japan. There are a lot of beautiful hotels in Tokyo, but there's only one Imperial Hotel. It's the hotel. I think of the Mauna Kea that way, too. It has a spirit. It stands on its own."

Mauna Kea spokesman David McNeil says the owners now have tentative plans to reopen the hotel in late spring 2008.