Preserving Hawai’i’s Post-War Commercial Development


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By: Alison Chiu

Existing shopping centers built between the 1950s through the 1970s on the island of Oahu are unique examples of Modernist architecture in Hawai’i, and they comprise the majority of large-scale commercial buildings on the island (or, even amongst the other islands, which did not experience the same level of commercial impact and tourist travel as Oahu during the post-war era). Precast arches, folded plates, thin shells, and barrel roofs are among the various methods of concrete forms adorning the structures. The Modernist architecture of post-war Hawai’i blended international appeal and construction techniques with a distinct regional style that looked to reinforce traditional Hawaiian heritage and articulate new perspectives on Hawaiian American identity. Although these shopping centers retain varying degrees of design and material integrity, market-driven development and renovation continually threaten to erase this important snapshot of Modern aesthetics and construction.

Sears Holding Corporation recently sold several of its retail stores to the Chicago-based company General Growth Properties, Inc., which immediately announced plans to close long-time tenant Sears department store at Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu by the end of 2013. Sears has been an anchor tenant of the shopping center since its construction in 1959 by developer Don Graham. Now faced with the impending departure of this tenant, Sears will disappear as many of the earliest shops (i.e., McInerny’s, Sato’s, Kramer’s, etc.) have, in favor of more profitable retail. Along with the ebb and flow of retail tenancy since its inauguration, multiple additions and renovations have drastically altered the mall’s original appearance. Today, only the Macy’s department store retains any recognizable traces of its predecessor Liberty House, constructed during the 1966 eastern wing addition of the mall.

Changes at Ala Moana Shopping Center correlate to the major progress of commercial development occurring in Hawai’i during the decades following World War II. With Hawai’i’s admission to Statehood in 1959 and significant advances in commercial aviation, a large number of people flocked to the islands. Oahu, in particular, became a major hub for national and international business and leisure travel. During the 1960s, the island experienced a significant economic boom, partially driven by tourism. This building boom directly spurred city planning and architectural development, and propelled the rapid transformation of what was once a sleepy island territory of plantation villages, sugar cane fields, and mangrove forests into an international modern metropolis. Chain-stores and shopping centers, which had developed earlier on the mainland in the 1920s & 1930s, now began to appear in Hawai’i.

(Image Left: Cast stone detail at First Hawaiian Bank - Wahiawa Shopping Center, Oahu; via: Alison Chiu, 2012)

Strategically located near highways, modern shopping centers still dot the built environment from the leeward to the windward side of the island. At the time, these commercial complexes presented a distinct new building typology to the Hawaiian vernacular. The new architecture wove together advanced structural engineering and eye-catching design to attract passersby in the newly-ubiquitous automobile, while also serving as a local nexus for the fast-growing residential communities that coalesced around them.

These commercial centers, generally one- to two-story high structures surrounded by ample parking, offered a variety of connected shops, services, restaurants, medical offices, and department stores. Apart from the main structure and located near the parking perimeter were banks, featuring repetitive geometric design details at metal screens or in cast stone, and gas stations designed with simple, clean lines.

Supermarkets such as Foodland, Times, and Piggly Wiggly helped anchor each location, providing economic stability and even encouraging further commercial and residential development in surrounding areas. In addition, government-supported services such as libraries and post offices were often constructed within or immediately nearby these new commercial hubs. The clustering of such amenities provided individuals and families with the mainland style of a “one-stop” shopping center. Planning and developing just the right combination of complimentary tenants was considered a specialized art form. As indicated by the increasing and projected level of growth during the 1960s in small towns such as Aiea, Pearl City, Kailua, and Kaneohe, these shopping centers were a driving social force that stimulated both residential and commercial development by providing a nucleus of goods, services, and community activity. By the end of the decade, the two dozen or so existing shopping centers contributed to more than half of Hawai’i’s retail trade.

(Image Right: A “double torus” dome covers the Foodland at Windward City Shopping Center in Kaneohe, Oahu; via: Alison Chiu, 2012)

Modern structures, with their expressionistic light-colored roof lines set against the evocative backdrop of Hawai’i’s lush green mountains and blue skies, became iconic commercial elements within the cultural landscape. However, due to factors which include increased development density, steady deterioration of materials and infrastructure, construction of taller surrounding buildings, and various alterations and renovations, many existing community shopping centers from the Modern era have lost some of the characteristic grace and striking aesthetic they once had.

 At the facade of the Kailua Beach Shopping Center, constructed in 1955 and designed by Wimberly and Cook, load-bearing grilles with blue heat-absorbing glass have been replaced in favor of wood siding and a boxy, built-out overhang that provides shade for the multiple storefronts below, but which also conceals a portion of the precast concrete abutments flanking each side of the 90-foot clear span roof. The original brick veneer liquor store which once stood adjacent to the supermarket entryway has since been demolished and additional parking now stands in its place.


(Image Above: Kailua Beach Shopping Center, Oahu (1955); via: “Foodland Supermarket, Kailua, Oahu, T.H.” Architectural Record, March, 1955, 117.)

(Image Right: Kailua Beach Shopping Center, Oahu; via: Alison Chiu, 2012)

How might we, as preservationists, residents of, and visitors to Hawai’i, begin to articulate what level and quality of growth is “acceptable” within our island communities? How do we address such inherent changes in commercial architecture, which perhaps represent a level of organic growth based on evolving community needs and desires in a way that no other architecture can? Should these changes be retained?

Ala Moana Shopping Center is currently considered a premier shopping destination for tourists and one of General Growth Properties’ highest revenue-producing malls, “with sales surpassing $1,200 per square foot,” according to representative Shobi Khan. It is also the shopping center which has undergone the most extensive renovations and numerous “face-lifts” to modernize its retail space. At what cost do we exchange the economic benefits of tourism and foreign investment for local community engagement and the historic integrity of our island’s very limited modern commercial resources?

In general, the study of Modernist buildings in Hawai’i is still in its infancy. Shopping centers are not only vastly undocumented in Hawai’i; they are also underrepresented within the study of Modern architecture. Many have already been altered from their original design, to various degrees. However, these resources of the recent past comprise a significant portion of Oahu’s building stock, showcase an international design aesthetic in regional architecture, and represent a period of monumental importance in Hawai’i’s history.

Continued research and study of these shopping centers, the majority of which still primarily service neighborhood and island communities, will help to provide additional scholarly context regarding the development of Modern architecture and commercial infrastructure on the island. With a look forward to the Hawai’i 2050 Sustainability Plan, as well as the need to address present and future economic realities, preservation of these existing structures is an imminent issue that will impact both cultural and material sustainability in the years to come.