Feature

These Old Houses

Among gleaming new high-rises, the vestiges of a bygone Waikīkī remain
Story by Curt Sanburn. Photos by PF Bentley.

PF Bentley remembers when he and his divorced mother left New York and moved to a condo in Waikīkī. It was 1961, two years after statehood and the advent of the jet age. Bentley was a nine-year-old kid, so naturally he ran down to the water, to Kūhīo Beach Park, to rent a surfboard for a dollar an hour. The third time he showed up, a beachboy offered him a board for free if he would help out with odds and ends.

“So, I grow up with the beachboys!” Bentley tells me happily during a phone interview from his home on Moloka‘i. Of course, he’s talking about Waikīkī’s legendary fraternity of friendly watermen: The surfing, swimming, paddling and sailing jocks who made their money getting tourists rigged with surfboards and lessons, or canoe and catamaran rides; who rented beach chairs and sold Coppertone, beach mats and sunglasses to the burgeoning numbers of tourists who visited Waikīkī’s serene and faraway strand.

Bentley remembers boss-man beachboy Harry Robello, a strikingly handsome athlete and sometime Hollywood actor who ran the beach concession for Sheraton Hotels, the owner/operator of the beachfront Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider hotels at the time. “Curly, Clooney, Wada, Haole Chuckie …” Bentley chants the beachboys’ names. “… all those guys …Woody Brown, I crewed on a catamaran with him … Herb Bessa …”

Known as “The Jungle,” the Diamond Head end of post-WWII Waikīkī was characterized by a lack of sidewalks and a plenitude of overgrown vegetation. This house, currently vacant, is one of the last holdouts from that place and time.

He shakes himself from his nostalgic incantation. “When I first got here,” he explains, “it really was like being in another country. I mean, there was a distinct outward culture—it looked different, the aroma was different, it felt different, laid back, low-key.”

“But then, while I was out in the surf at Canoes, I watched it all change. All day long, I’d hear pile drivers pounding, then I’d see all these building cranes flying around with towers coming up under them.”

Which of the towers? I ask. “All of them,” he answers.

Bentley, now 66, is a professional photographer. Recently he cataloged sixteen surviving single-family houses tucked into the back streets of the Waikīkī resort district, which is now experiencing another construction boom amid record-breaking visitor numbers.

Most of the houses Bentley found can be described as plantation or Arts-and-Crafts-style cottages of the 1920s through 1940s. Their lots are small and lushly planted. They show us, even today, that away from the glamour of the beach hotels Waikīkī was once predominantly low-rise neighborhoods with pretty, neatly landscaped streets and a unique, tropical kind of urbanity. Over time, these pleasant, family-friendly houses gave way to multi-cottage courts and two-story, walk-up apartment buildings, which themselves were, in time, replaced by the towers that Bentley watched go up while he surfed. In the nineteenth year of the twenty-first century, these houses, still lived in and loved, are on the verge of disappearing, as Waikīkī bids aloha, finally, to the twentieth century.

“What was so good about those days was that Waikīkī streets were shady because of all the palm trees,” recalls a retired Waikīkī bartender who first arrived there in 1958 from his home on Maui. “They rose up from both sides of streets with the fronds touching overhead, so when you walked down the street, you were always cooled by the shade. That was the beauty of it.”

We’re talking story in his grassy bit of backyard, behind his small wooden cottage, part of a two-story walk-up apartment complex behind Fort DeRussy at the ‘Ewa end of Waikīkī, where he’s hung his hat since 1980. The tanned, fit 78-year-old says he doesn’t need any publicity and asks if he can remain anonymous, so, he’s “The Bartender.” Raised in a Hawaiian-Chinese family, The Bartender came to Waikīkī at age 18 to find a job and a place to live. The Clouds bar on Kapahulu Avenue was his first gig, and his first home was a room in hotelier Roy Kelley’s original property, a single-story court of cottages on Seaside Avenue called the Islander. He moved around from bar to bar and from house to house. ‘Ōhua Street to Paoakalani to Lemon, all of them at the Diamond Head end of Waikīkī in what was known as “The Jungle”: One of the most densely populated and cheapest neighborhoods in Honolulu during the post-World War II years.

I ask why it was called the Jungle. “Because that’s what it was,” he says, “all crowded with crummy little streets, no sidewalks but lots of overgrown plantings, small houses and apartments, no high-rises.” An added attraction for him was the handful of Maui cousins and buddies who lived there, too.

“It was a carefree life, everybody was living day-to-day. That was a fun time,” he says, explaining that in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Beatnik era, “a lot of haoles came here, waiting to be drafted. So they all … well, not all, but a lot of young guys came here to have fun, to play. They saw the Elvis movies. It was all marketing. … And a lot of guys who were already in the military got places in Waikīkī, too. They did their time on base and then they’d come here. Everybody was more in harmony than they are now.”

Work-wise, The Bartender settled down at the Captain Cook Room in the historic Moana Surfrider Hotel—opened in 1901 as the first multistory hotel on Waikīkī beach—and finally moved up the beach in 1971 to the then-brand-new Sheraton Waikīkī Hotel, to the Pacific Bar, where he stayed until his retirement thirteen years ago. Now he swims every morning at 6 a.m. at Ft. DeRussy beach. He calls Waikīkī’s waters healing: “I’ve got a bad back. If I don’t swim, I don’t move.”

This photo was taken sometime between 1947 and 1954, in the interlude between the end of World War II and the advent of statehood in 1959. Only a few big hotels are visible along the shoreline, where high-rises now predominate.

Wearing the local uniform of shorts, a tank-top and shades, The Bartender bemoans the thinning coconut trees—and the thinning of the characters who made Waikīkī “interesting.” People like Blue Kahalewai, “a fantastic Hawaiian … I don’t know what happened to him, but he was pure Hawaiian. They called him Blue because he was blue, really dark! And Hot Dog Annie … ho!” He chuckles. She was a New Yorker with a foul mouth, he says, and had her hot dog stand up there next to Jack Cione’s Forbidden City, a strip club up on Kalākaua Avenue.

Rudy Choy, the sailor and entrepreneur who built a lucrative tourist business selling catamaran rides from the beach, had a big house on Kūhiō Avenue where The Bartender sometimes lived. As he describes it, the house, hidden behind a mock orange hedge and wrought-iron gates under a great old elephant-ear tree, was built completely out of ‘ōhi‘a wood. “That was where I had an experience with Madam Pele,” he says momentously, firmly, referring to the goddess of fire. “I saw her.”

A surfer called Black Out was the last of the characters in Waikīkī, he says. “He died about two years ago. He was named that because during the war he went surfing all the time, right? Even at night, during the blackouts, when everybody was supposed to be inside, during curfew, but he got through the barbed wires on the beach and went surfing every day, every night … that’s what he told me, anyways.”

The bars he can remember include the Merry-Go-Round Bar, the Romanie Room, the Coq d’Or and Joe’s at Waikīkī (the younger beachboys’ hangout, he says), Blue Ocean, the Blue Dolphin Room, Steamboats and the Palm Tree Inn: “It was popular with the older beachboys. I used to drink martinis there with Charlie Amalu—at six, seven in the morning! You don’t find ’em like Charlie anymore. He was a fantastic storyteller about his days back to the turn of the century … he was really kolohe, a real rascal.” There was also Canlis’, and Queen’s Surf—“I went there barefoot, before Kui Lee, when Sterling Mossman was upstairs. He was amazing.”

I ask him what he thinks of Waikīkī today. He sighs and tilts his head back, pondering. Twin reflections of a skinny, sunlit thirty-story condo tower, the Lanikea across the street, suddenly slip across the dark lenses of his glasses.

Waikīkī seems to float on its stories, on the breeze, in the heart, in memories. Its beach is a long and slender pile of soft sand sweeping from the shore of the youngish volcanic headland Lē‘ahi and arcing northwest to the coralline plains of Honolulu. About half a million years ago, Lē‘ahi (a.k.a. Diamond Head) erupted and piled its ejecta into a now-rumpled, Sphinx-like promontory atop an old reef, a full mile south from the two far bigger and far older volcanic massifs—the Wai‘anae and the Ko‘olau—that mother the island of O‘ahu.

Inland from the sand and extending up to the Ko‘olau elevations, there was once a vast muliwai (wetland) fed by Waikīkī’s three “flashy” (i.e., prone to flash-flooding) mountain streams. The muliwai was used to grow food for a thousand years by Hawaiians, who engineered it into productive taro terraces and fishponds. As always, the ocean-going tradewinds, blowing steadily from the northeast, lofted over the Ko‘olau massif and combed Lē‘ahi and Waikīkī as a well-tempered breeze—decelerated, desalted and dehumidified just so. Because of the Ko‘olau windscreen, Waikīkī’s broad and surf-flecked bay is a happily leeward waterway, gentler than some, with its spotty reefs arranged for winter ease and summertime south swells.

Waikīkī was historically O‘ahu’s seat of power. During the earliest part of the nineteenth century Kamehameha I, the chief from Kohala who forged the Hawaiian nation and became its first king, spent five years in residence at Helumoa, under an ancient coconut grove where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel now stands. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the low-lying beach become a resort colony of rustic beach houses, Victorian mansions and estates used by many of Honolulu’s richest citizens to escape the dust and summertime heat of the raffish port town three miles distant via King Street and Waikīkī Road (renamed Kalākaua Avenue in 1905). Among the residents was King Kamehameha’s sole heir, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Other big Waikīkī estates were owned by Queen Emma, King Kalākaua, Queen Lili‘uokalani, and Princess Ka‘iulani. Families with names like Waterhouse, Afong, Damon, Cunha, von Holt, Spreckels, Castle and Dole carved up the rest of the beachfront.

To honor his queen, Kapi‘olani, King Kalākaua gifted Waikīkī’s great green, Kapi‘olani Park, to a thankful (and virtually park-less) Honolulu in 1877. At the time, O‘ahu’s population was about twenty thousand. Mule-drawn car service connected Waikīkī and the park to town and lasted eleven years; then came electric trolley service in 1905. Adjacent to the park, the Macfarlane estate was converted into the Park Beach Hotel in late 1888. It was Waikīkī’s first hostelry but shut down within a year.

Laundry in the breeze signals a domestic clearing in the heart of an urban jungle. With the remaining residential lots in Waikīkī each valued at over a million dollars it’s a wonder that scenes like this can still be found today.

Another hotel nearby, the Sans Souci, opened on the grounds of the former Herbert estate; it did business for five years. The sturdy hau tree trellis beneath which hotel guests lounged and recharged is still there; now its bower of heart-shaped leaves shades the pink tablecloths of the Hau Tree Lanai restaurant, beachside at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.

As the twentieth century dawned, acres of wetland and chunks of the old royal estates were filled and subdivided willy-nilly into five-thousand-square-foot house lots. A six-acre portion of King Kalākaua’s estate became the Royal Grove subdivision in 1915; the traditional Kalākaua Avenue entrance to the ‘Āinahau estate was renamed Ka‘iulani Avenue after Princess Ka‘iulani’s storied home was subdivided in 1919.

When Mark Twain, then a young journalist, visited Waikīkī in 1866, he famously described killing “two millions” of mosquitoes simply by sitting down in a chair. Years later, the Territory of Hawai‘i solved Waikīkī’s mosquito problem—and stoked a real-estate bonanza—when it completed its Waikīkī Reclamation Plan, an ambitious engineering project that channelized and diverted Waikīkī’s streams and brackish backwaters away from their natural beach outfalls and into a wide canal that emptied into the ocean at the far northwest end of the district. The three-mile-long Ala Wai Canal, 250 feet wide, was completed in 1928. It radically transformed Waikīkī by creating a dry, level peninsula detached from its mauka lands and waters. Save for three canal bridges, the project isolated Waikīkī from the urbanization and traffic of eastern Honolulu, and encouraged the wholesale development of single-family houses within its 3.4-square-mile grid of walkable streets, with uniform street widths, updated infrastructure and setback rules. New parklands surrounded the district.

Local attorney Jacob “Jack” Merrill has lived happily with his wife Sheil on Waikīkī’s backstreets for many years. Despite the general lack of youngsters in the district, they raised their son there. For the last decade, the family has rented a five-bedroom, two-story house with a front and backyard on Kālaimoku Street, just a block from The Bartender’s cottage. The neighborhood, the old August Ahrens tract, was among the first to be subdivided after completion of the canal.

Waikīkī was home to many of Hawai‘i’s royals throughout the nineteenth century. Echoes of this past can be found in the place names there today. Ka‘iulani Avenue, for example, was named after Princess Ka‘iulani, who lived on an estate there.

In Merrill’s downtown Honolulu office, the sly, funny lawyer tells me about his capacious house, so conducive to entertaining; how he and Sheil used to host “off the hook” Sunday barbecues and Thanksgiving feasts.

“I mean, everybody came over, and we’d all sit in the yard and look up at all the condos around us and wave at the people looking down. We had a pretty good time—and drew a few complaints and a few investigations—people thought we were running a bar or something like that, but we were just having our own little rolling party. In all, it was a really fun house on a fun street.” Before they rented it, he tells me, the place had endured thirty years as a party house rented by an evolving group of Pearl Harbor submariners.

“Waikīkī appeals to us the same way it appealed to the kings and queens who wanted to have their summer homes here,” Merrill says. “It hardly ever rains. It’s just a marvelous environment.”

Is it noisy? I ask. “Yeah, absolutely! Happy people laughing, bands practicing, trolleys full of screaming kids, firework noises, sometimes people fighting, you know. So, yes, it’s all part of living in Waikīkī. One of the big attractions of Waikīkī used to be that many hotel workers lived here, when it was cheaper, and they would meet tourists in the hotels, and they’d invite them back to their houses for little dinners and parties. Waikīkī used to be like that, lots of mixing.”

Merrill’s stories seem to be in the past tense. I ask him why. “Well, we get older,” he says. “Our son’s now in college, so it’s just the two of us in that big ole house. It’s become too much house.”

Merrill’s lease has been month-to-month since the beginning, he tells me. “When I rented the place from the Lau family, the manager was very clear. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘the plan is that this place is gonna be bulldozed,’ right? That’s the plan. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Most of the eight lots on Merrill’s side of the street are vacant. His house, built in 1952, sits at the middle of the block, between ramshackle dwellings on either side. According to city records, the eight lots are currently owned by two entities, one local and one based in Japan. In March 2018, Merrill’s house was among the six adjacent lots the Lau family sold to the Japanese company.

Photographer PF Bentley captured sixteen surviving single-family homes in Waikīkī for this story. All sit on small lots lushly planted, presenting the unique, tropical kind of urbanity more prevalent there in the past.

Half a block from Merrill’s place is the truly massive wall of a new condo/hotel called the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikīkī Beach, where Donald and Melania Trump overnighted en route to their November 2017 tour of Asia. I ask Merrill how he feels about it. “It’s okay,” he says, “but I think it was more fun when Hula’s, Hamburger Mary’s, Cafe Valentino and Godfather’s Pizza were there …the whole Kūhiō District, there was a lot there, a lot of fun.” For many years, the Kūhiō District —an atmospheric warren of older, tiki-style outdoor bars, shops, a hotel and two landmark banyan trees—was the hub for Honolulu’s gay community and visitors. It was demolished in 2000 to make way for the Ritz-Carlton.

I ask Merrill what other bar he misses, and which existing bar he recommends. He still goes to Arnold’s, a hideaway bar on Saratoga Road, and there’s Duke’s beachfront bar at the Outrigger Hotel, where, he says, “you can’t go wrong.” And the new International Market Place is “kind of fabulous. The third floor—they did a really good job with the restaurants. And there’s lots of open space.”

“Somebody donated a whole bunch of bread, so we’re going to make French toast for lunch,” Alika Campbell tells me and says he expects about twenty street kids, or “drop ins,” for lunch, but it’s dicey: Three kids can show up, or eighty.

Campbell, the tall, blue-eyed program director at the Hale Kipa Youth Outreach center (“YO!”) in Waikīkī, sits at a picnic bench under the shade of a big mango tree in the center’s cluttered backyard. Since 1990, the center has been crammed into a simple, one-story, three-bedroom house, circa 1940, tucked into Keoniana Street right off Kalākaua Avenue. Chain-link fencing protects the plot from the parking lot of a Dollar Rent-A-Car stand next door, strategically located at the corner of Kalākaua; while on two other sides, apartment buildings of four and twelve stories crowd the center.

YO’s customers, Campbell says, are mostly teen runaways, street kids or homeless, up to age 22, who naturally gravitate to O‘ahu’s two most action-packed urban areas, either downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown or Waikīkī, with their abundant beach, street and nightlife. “There’s not a lot to do in the suburbs,” Campbell explains. Open during daylight hours only, the YO! center provides a safe place for the kids to stash their important papers, get a hot meal, counseling, computer training, medical attention, someone to talk to—or a couch on which to kick back and watch a movie. According to Campbell, the center serves between five and six thousand free meals annually, made possible by donations from businesses, churches and civic groups.

Bentley grew up in the Waikīkī of the 60’s, watching from his favorite surf breaks as single-family homes slowly transformed into high-rises. “All day long, I’d hear pile drivers pounding,” he says. “Then I’d see all these building cranes flying around with towers coming up under them.”

We gaze back toward the house and its lānai, where Campbell has worked for twenty-one years. He points out that the house still flies its vestigial rooftop TV antenna. “The reason it’s still up there is because we’ve got three or four layers of asphalt shingles on the roof, and we’re kind of afraid of climbing up there and maybe collapsing it,” he says ruefully, as he surveys his kuleana (responsibility).

“It’s probably a million-dollar-plus piece of property,” he says, “and a total tear-down, as much as I love it.” The property is owned by the Waikīkī Baptist Church, just catty-corner from the center’s backyard on Kuamo‘o Street. Campbell points to the tropical-modernist church with its swooping roof, visible just beyond the fence. The City & County of Honolulu assesses the house and its five-thousand-square-foot lot at just over $1.5 million.

“If this goes away, where are we gonna go?” he wonders. “With that waste-of-space rental-car lot, the one-story ABC store on the next corner—even this small apartment building behind us—you buy all this up, demolish it and build a tower. It’s been happening all over Waikīkī for years, so, yeah, there’s definitely a squeeze.”

PF Bentley, compiler of Waikīkī’s surviving houses, now lives on Moloka‘i. Every time he comes to O‘ahu, “it’s weird,” he says. “You drive streets and you don’t know where you are. The landmarks are all changed. These houses are the last out-posts of what once was, and tourists walk by and don’t even look at them!”

Like Merrill, he mentions the redevelopment of the old International Market Place in the heart of commercial Waikīkī, the crazy-kitschy outdoor bazaar that opened for business under a venerable banyan tree in 1956. Now the thick limbs of the heavily pruned tree define the atrium for a three-floor, open-air caravanserai of internationally branded shops, Hawai‘i’s first Saks Fifth Avenue store, and sleek, high-end restaurants. The Market Place has become the crux for opinions about old versus new Waikīkī.

“I’ll say it’s gorgeous, it’s clean, there are great stores,” Bentley avers, “but it lost its funk. They did a good job on it, if you hadn’t known the old one.”

If I hadn’t known the old one … in other words, things change and memory colors perception, a person has to be of a certain age to know that things weren’t always as they are now. Call it the theory of forgetting, or the new normal. Everyone adjusts to the scale of the new Waikīkī, even as memories linger.

A blissful beach strewn with fishing canoes becomes a royal colony. A family cottage becomes a teen runaway safe house becomes a glass tower. If we are not curious about a place and never learn its story, then history disappears, a century disappears. Even as the coconut trees whisper still. HH