The Architect of Hope

Alfred Preis fled the Nazis, suffered internment and built some of Hawaii’s most enduring structures and institutions
Story by Jordan Kandell. Photos by Olivier Koning.

Alfred Preis didn’t set out to become an architect, but the moment he first saw Jana splashing in a Salzburg pool in the summer of 1930—her alabaster legs, her atrium-wide smile—he knew: To marry her, he would have to redesign his life. “In Austria at that time, there was no way to marry into a middle-class family without having a job,” Preis recalled in an oral history recorded near the end of his life. “I actually wanted to become an actor … but I [had] no talent … so I finally decided to become an architect.”

Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, Le Corbusier, Vladimir Ossipoff—these are the visionaries whose architecture would come to define the movement now called mid-century modern. Characterized by minimalist lines, simple materials, open floor plans and a connection to nature, it was an architecture of ideas and integration. That mainstream style of the 1950s has been meticulously re-created by period shows like Mad Men. It’s a style of which Preis became not just a disciple but a master, creating his own signature—one that merged modern esthetics with the tropical landscapes of Hawai‘i. The entrance to the Honolulu Zoo, the First United Methodist Church on Beretania Street and the USS Arizona Memorial are a few of Preis’ best-known works. Yet Preis, who served as Hawai‘i’s first state planning coordinator, who founded the still thriving Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and who worked alongside his more famous collaborator and lifelong friend Vladimir Ossipoff, is largely forgotten outside of architecture circles.

“Preis was, in my opinion, one of the most instrumental and important figures in building the Hawai‘i we know today,” says Jack Gillmar, who along with historian Don Hibbard and Preis’ son, architect Jahn-Peter Preis, is co-authoring Alfred Preis: Hawaii’s Renaissance Man. “My father was a visionary,” says daughter Erica Preis, looking through photos of her father’s works. “Really ahead of his time.” She lingers on a 1950 image of Melemele Place: a microcosm of Preis’ residential architecture. In the yellowing picture, a dozen mid-century modern homes sit etched into the mountains of Mānoa as though carved from the land itself. Each reflects Preis’ trademark style: butterfly and Bauhaus roofs, sculptural lines, bold use of contrasting colors and floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto nature. Preis chose this site and named it Melemele, “golden” in Hawaiian, for the way the light shines. It’s on this street that he built what he considered his greatest art and where he lived for fifty years. And it’s on this same street, in a house I bought and have spent the past three years meticulously restoring, that I conducted my interviews with his descendants and admirers.

“My father saw things in a different way,” Erica says, “but I don’t know if people understood him.” Soft-spoken yet hardheaded, humble yet hot-tempered, Preis was a man of contradictions and convictions. He was a man driven by love and war to reconstruct his life over and over, content with nothing less than building a better world.

From the start Alfred “Fred” Preis’ life defied the conventional wisdom on which all architecture relies: You can’t build on a faulty foundation. Born the sickly son of a poor, working-class Viennese family in 1911, no one expected him to live long. Yet he survived, first tuberculosis at age four, then World War I (in which his soldier-father had left to fight). A sensitive and imaginative child, Preis dreamed of life beyond the blocky walls that hemmed in his childhood.

The author and his family in their Alfred Preis-designed home, the first of a dozen homes Preis built on Melemele Place, where he lived for fifty years. “It was my father’s favorite home for the way its design blended with the forest,” says Preis’ daughter Erica. “It felt as if there were no separation between where nature stopped and home began.”

It wasn’t until that summer day when he first saw Jana that the 19-year-old Alfred dared to do more than just dream. But the tides of war were rising in Europe, sweeping Preis and millions more in un-foreseen directions. A lifelong pacifist, Preis was desperate to escape. “I grew up in Catholicism, but my father was Jewish,” he recalled. “I was in danger.” On March 12, 1938, Nazi panzers rolled into Vienna. Two days later, the day Hitler arrived, Alfred and Jana married. fifty-five years later Preis remained smitten by his wife and muse: “I married a girl I didn’t deserve,” he’d say. It was a refrain his daughter Erica says she heard her entire life: “He always said he would be nothing if it weren’t for my mom.”

Building a better future for his new wife became Preis’ first great architectural feat, and it took root in Hawai‘i. “We saw a series of South Seas movies of the time,” Preis recalled, “and fell in love with the people and the trees and the atolls.” Recently graduated from the Vienna University of Technology, Preis spent all the money he had, waited many months, cashed in on favors and acquired five passports before he and Jana were permitted to leave Nazi-occupied Austria and make their way to America and eventually Honolulu. They arrived in June of 1939; Alfred was 28. He was shocked to find, after his epic ten-thousand-mile journey, that his celluloid vision of paradise (no atolls!) was starkly different from the actual island he would come to love.

He started working as an underpaid draftsman for the Honolulu architectural firm Dahl and Conrad. Founding partner Connie Conrad took him under his wing and, as Preis recalled, “helped me to become an American architect.” Preis’ modern sensibilities, skill in furniture design and tireless work ethic earned him quick praise in O‘ahu high society, and he soon found himself in demand. “I designed before the war at least twenty residences,” Preis said.

The USS Arizona Memorial (pictured) is Preis’ most distinctive design. He intended it “to have a direct effect on the emotions”—and it did: The design was harshly criticized as a “squashed milk carton” at first. It was saved by a fundraising concert thrown by Elvis Presley in 1961.

Gillmar attributes Preis’ popularity to the fact that “he was the first European architect in Hawai‘i. He designed here in a way no one else had, channeling two streams: European and American; Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright.” Within two years Preis would go from low-level draftsman to declining an offer to become a partner, because as Preis confessed: “I thought I wasn’t ready for it.” Erica frames her father’s decision differently: “Honest to a fault. He really was a man who had a lot of integrity.”

From nothing, Preis had created a blueprint for his future. He was on the rise and had just passed his certification exams for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) when the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. And just like that, everything changed.

The knock came just after 7 p.m. on a chilly December night. If it had been any ordinary evening, nothing would have seemed strange about the two gentlemen standing, perhaps a bit too stiffly, on the front lānai. But this was December 8, 1941. Hawai‘i was in a full-blown state of emergency: windows had been boarded up, streetlights blacked out and an eerie silence blanketed the abandoned boulevards. The knock came again, louder, more insistent.

Preis remained stoic as he and Jana were escorted to the US Immigration Station on Ala Moana Boulevard, separated at bayonet point, then stuffed into cells with other Europeans and Japanese-Americans. Before fleeing Vienna two years earlier, Preis had experienced firsthand the terrifying grip of martial law. Still, nothing prepared him for forced internment. It would be three and a half months before he would embrace Jana again outside of barbed wire. His AIA certificate arrived in the mail while he was imprisoned at the internment camp on Sand Island.

“At that time” Preis recalled, “we lost everything we had.” But Erica tells me her father “never expressed any bitterness towards coming here and being detained.” In fact it was the opposite, says Preis’ grandson Laka Preis Carpenter: “My grandfather actually always expressed gratitude toward the opportunities he was given in Hawai‘i.” Ever the architect of his own destiny, once released Preis set to work rebuilding his life from the foundation up.

But the foundation had new cracks: As a former interned foreigner, Preis couldn’t find a job. So he began his own architecture firm, which flourished and which he successfully spearheaded for twenty years. When he felt outrage at what he called the “shame and scandal of the ugly man-made environment” marring the natural beauty of Hawai‘i, he lobbied for the creation of the first state planning coordinator position in Hawai‘i, a job he was immediately offered and that he accepted. From 1963 to 1986 Preis was at the vanguard of “all the major environmental issues of the ’60s and ’70s,” says Gillmar, “from preserving roads, public parks and view planes to Diamond Head.” He was fundamental in shaping Honolulu’s capital district, state schools like Laupāhoehoe Elementary, public buildings on every island and the look of much of modern Hawai‘i.

The achievement of which Preis is most proud—but the one for which he’s perhaps least remembered—is founding the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, where he served as director for fifteen years. “Preis wanted and felt responsible as an architect to replace the beauty that he felt was being taken away by building on Hawai‘i’s natural landscape,” says acting HSFCA director Jonathan Johnson. “His solution was public art. Preis made it his mission to ensure people from all walks of life could access the vibrant heritage of our Islands’ diverse and distinct cultures through painting, sculpture, music and dance.”

Among Preis’ lasting contributions as director was helping to establish the Arts in Education program, the Governor’s Conference on Culture and the Arts and the groundbreaking Art in State Buildings law, which to this day devotes 1 percent of every dollar spent on state construction costs for public art. Hawai‘i was the first state in the nation to institute such a program, and others followed. Under Preis’ reign as Hawai‘i’s “art czar”—a moniker he earned for his gladiatorial outspokenness—the foundation acquired or commissioned over two thousand works by local and international artists. “His legacy,” Johnson says with pride, “lives on in every state building, from airports, schools, hospitals and libraries to government offices, parks and towers.”

“I do believe deeply,” Preis said toward the end of his life in 1993, “that the arts reside in the truly human area where each individual is going to do something …better and better and better, until he or she gets it right. This is the essence of a successful life.” It’s fitting, then, that the greatest testament to his art, the design in which all his expertise and experience came together, remains his most enduring. “With the Arizona Memorial he was forging his own path,” says Gillmar. “It was unlike anything he’d done or anything anyone had seen. It’s a sculpture.” One deeply personal to the man who built it. “He lived out his life story through the Arizona,” says Laka, “the sunken architecture in the center symbolizes initial defeat, but the raised ends represent ultimate triumph, for both America and for my grandfather as well.” Today nearly two million people a year walk the white bridge of remembrance and hope for peace. Yet few who visit remember the man who in 1941 stood behind the barbed wire of an internment camp on Sand Island—watching the smoke rise from the burning wreckage of the ship that now lies beneath—and envisioned a better world.

In addition to memorials and churches, Preis designed schools, like the rebuilt Laupāhoehoe Community Public Charter School on Hawai‘i Island (above, also seen on the title page). The original structure had been destroyed by a tsunami in 1946.

It’s that legacy that I, as an owner of an Alfred Preis home, feel a personal passion to preserve. I remember the moment I first saw my future home, with its flat roof, bold color palette and wall-to-wall windows—in a way it was similar to how Preis must have felt when he first laid eyes on Jana. Which is to say, I knew that to live there, I would have to redesign my life. Every contractor, carpenter and construction worker urged me to tear down the termite-riddled residence and start from scratch. Instead I spent two years painstakingly restoring it using Preis’ original blueprints. When Erica and Laka step inside and see the final result, it all feels worthwhile. “I wish my grandfather could see this,” Laka tells me, “he would have been touched.” HH