Sunny Spotlight: Modernism in Hawaii


Don Hibbard


Architectural Historian; Author; Board Member, Docomomo US/Hawaii


Hawaii, Regional Spotlight
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In the decades immediately following World War II, Hawaii exploded into the modern era. This remote island chain in the north Pacific suddenly found itself in the midst of global activity with the advent of passenger jet service to Honolulu and the laying of the trans-Pacific telephone cable, both of which contributed to more closely linking the United States with its newest state. Within a matter of less than thirty years a rural, agrarian society dependent upon sugar and pineapple for its livelihood transformed itself into an alluringly cosmopolitan financial hub for the Pacific with the travel industry as its mainstay.

The outside world impinged itself upon the islands to a degree unprecedented in Hawaii’s history. And the population boomed. Between 1950 and 1970, Hawaii’s population more than doubled, the number of automobiles more than tripled, and the number of visitors to Hawaii’s shores jumped from 46,593 to 1,746,970.

The architecture of the islands, keeping pace with its society, assumed an increasingly modern flair, while continuing to embrace the Islands’ strong regional design tradition. Textured wall surfaces, frequently incorporating local stone, softened the rigidity of modernism, and the solid, geometric massing, so commonly associated with the international style, was opened up to invite the outside in. As land values escalated, building heights increased, transforming the city’s skyline from one dominated by coconut palms to one of high rise hotels, apartments, and office buildings.

In a time period celebrating the new, Hawaii, on becoming the fiftieth state, was the newest of the new.


Sunny Spotlight Part One
Where God Left Off: 
The Diamond Tiara of Laurance Rockefeller

by Don Hibbard, Architectural Historian; Author; Board Member, Docomomo US/Hawaii

On the island of Hawaii, overlooking the crescent beach of Kaunaoa Bay, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel single handedly set forth the basic design vocabulary for elegant and open oceanfront luxury worldwide. Few resort hotels have approached this grand hotel’s level of excellence, although all have found a need to respond to it.

In 1961, Kaunaoa Bay was situated literally in the middle of nowhere. Planning and construction for the hotel proved to be a prodigious logistical operation. Enveloped by an arid geography, the site could only be reached via an unpaved road and hiking trails. As a result, the project included drilling of three wells, constructing a sewage treatment plant, and paving a road from Kawaihae Harbor to the hotel - a road which would later become a 3.8-mile portion of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Cement for the resort project was barged to Kawaihae and trucked to the property, while all other material came by a two hour drive from Hilo. A camp was temporarily erected to house and feed the approximately five hundred men who worked at the site.

The development of such a magnificent hotel in such a desolate area was no accident. Its beginnings may be traced back to George Mason, the head of Hawaii’s Department of Economic Development. Knowing Laurance Rockefeller had invested in tropical resort development, Mr. Mason stayed at Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay Plantation resort hotel in the Virgin Islands, where he conceived the idea to invite Mr. Rockefeller to Hawaii, hoping to induce him to construct a hotel in the Islands. As a result, in July 1960, Hawaii’s Governor William Quinn invited the Rockerfeller family to the Fiftieth State, where they visited for twelve days. Rockefeller met with State Planning officials who visited and flew over several destination areas identified in the State’s recently completed tourism development study, with a donated charter plane by Aloha Airlines. The final stop included a jaunt down to Kaunaoa Bay, where George Mason, Allston Boyer, and Laurance Rockefeller went for a swim. The millionaire was fascinated by the setting, captivated by his view of Mauna Kea’s snow-covered peak while floating in the warm, blue Pacific.

The third son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was favorably impressed, especially by the state’s visionary tourism planning efforts. Recognizing Hawaii’s visitor industry’s potential, he informed Governor Quinn in a January 31, 1961 letter that he intended to develop a resort on the island of Hawaii. At the end of May 1961, the millionaire, golf course designer Robert Trent Jones, and the governor, made a two-day visit to the area and solidified plans.

Rockefeller’s investment into Hawaii’s fastest growing industry was not an impulsive one, as the fifty-one year old businessman had already overseen three successful resort hotel projects:  Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1955), Caneel Bay on St. John Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands (1955), and Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico (1958). He also acquired Estate Good Hope in St. Croix in 1959, and was in the process of developing Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands (opened in 1964). All locations are situated on pristine sites of exemplary beauty, where Rockefeller wanted to “make them available to people who, like Rockefeller, want to get back to nature now and then.”(1)

Rockefeller selected Honolulu planning and engineering firm, Belt, Collins & Associates, to be the project’s site planner. The project became the company’s first major destination resort hotel project and paved the way for the firm to become one of the preeminent resort planners in the world. Over the next four decades the company undertook projects in America, Asia, Africa, Europe, India, Australia, and across the Pacific.

For architectural design, Rockefeller initially selected John Carl Warnecke, but quickly turned to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) of New York, the modern architecture firm of corporate America. SOM’s reputation was already firmly established thanks to the curtain-walled Lever House in New York (1952), and its innumerable progeny.


In 1966, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel won an American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Honor Award, making the project not only the first building in Hawaii to achieve such recognition, but also one of the first hotels to be honored. According to the AIA judges, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel addressed the tropical environment with modern elan, possessing, gracious interiors, and the gardens and green spaces captured the flavor of a resort hotel. It is completely suitable for a sub-tropical climate with its restrained detailing and fine spatial sequences in a completely modern idiom. (2)

Edward Charles, “Chuck,” Bassett of SOM, San Francisco office was responsible for the design, which Architectural Review praised for “the astonishing interpenetration” of indoors and outdoors provided by the courtyards and lobby (3), moving hotel architecture into an entirely new realm of delightful, inviting openness, gracefulness of line and space, and a relaxed, serene majesty. In 1967, Esquire magazine proclaimed the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel to be the finest resort hotel in the world and one of the top three hotels on the planet, and a year earlier Fortune magazine considered it one of the top ten buildings in the United States. (4)  

Its open, flowing spaces blurred distinctions between indoors and outdoors, with its doorless entry immediately setting the tone, transparently framing views of the Pacific horizon, setting the standard for the succeeding generations of beach resorts in Hawaii and throughout the world.

To better appreciate the hotel’s seminal role, the enraptured national press effused glowing accolades in its efforts to capture the spirit of incredible originality and quality of design which had been set before it in remote Hawaii. An article in Sports Illustrated espoused the basic context, Mauna Kea typifies the wondrous things that happen when a Rockefeller with his own philosophy of recreation begins tearing up the orthodox ideas about what a resort must have---and tearing up his budgets, too. (5) Richard Joseph in Esquire went a bit further and declared the Mauna Kea to be, "The greatest resort hotel on earth. It is in fact, a compendium of superlatives . . . Its cost of $15,000,000 for a hundred-fifty-four-room hotel puts its unit cost at about $100,000 per room, certainly the highest of any resort hotel." Nobody but a Rockefeller can spend that sort of money, and nobody but Laurance Rockefeller could have spent it with such superb taste. (6)

Caskie Stinnett, writing for Holiday magazine, further elaborated, "For a long time now I have stubbornly held to the view that anything Laurance S. Rockefeller can do, God can do as well. But my first glance from a plane window at Mauna Kea, the resort that Rockefeller created amid the lava rock and desert waste of Hawaii’s west coast, caused me a moment’s hesitation. If nothing else, one had certainly picked up nicely where the Other had left off . . . It is a Godforsaken landscape running from the foot of Mauna Kea [volcano] to the sea, and on this wasteland the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has been placed, like a diamond tiara in the hair of a pygmy. It is an Olympian thing that has been done, but it has been done simply, gracefully and in a way that makes Mr. Rockefeller seem infinitely remote. The gleaming white four-story hotel nestles in a green oasis of palms and flaming Hawaiian foliage, a half-moon of beach lies in front of the hotel, a three-million-dollar golf course stretches along the sea and extends on volcanic rock out into the ocean, and a swimming pool and cork-turf tennis courts are hidden in the palms. After this, I presumed, Mr. Rockefeller rested." (7)

The hotel remains a joy, well worth at least a journey across the Pacific to experience.

Horace Sutton of the Saturday Review was one of three hundred people who attended the opening of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in July 1965. He called the hotel, “one of the most elaborate playlands ever constructed in the United States,” and declared the hotel to be, “one of the greatest great houses ever conceived by anyone less than a Pharaoh.”(8) Sutton’s allusion to the great country houses of the affluent was not by chance. Mr. Rockefeller had indeed, in many ways, taken the word “hotel” back to its French origins when the term referred to large private residences, mansions. The recreations offered at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel were those which the affluent enjoyed at their country houses, tennis, swimming, golf, and the riding of horses. Here guests could anticipate the quality of life the rich enjoyed at their private retreats. The Mauna Kea Beach was their country home in Hawaii, and Laurance Rockefeller their host.

The motivation behind constructing the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was to share Kaunaoa Bay’s beautiful, sparkling white sand and turquoise waters with visitors. However, Laurance Rockefeller, perhaps unconsciously, went much further. He had, in essence, created a completely human designed environment, using the beach and bay as a foundation, and heralded the modern transformation of a resort hotel into a destination unto itself. At the time of the hotel’s opening, Paradise of the Pacific went so far as to claim Mr. Rockefeller, “is more responsible than anyone else for the renaissance of the destination resort.”(9) 

Over the next few decades, the total transformation of the landscape would become the norm, undertaken at resort after resort, and the design lead of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel would undergo a variety of permutations, while encircling the globe.

This essay was excerpted and revised from a larger chapter in Don Hibbard’s "Designing Paradise, the Allure of the Hawaiian Resort," New York:  Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.


  1. Gwilym S. Brown, “Pioneers in Every Sense,” Sports Illustrated, June 28, 1965, p 75
  2. AIA Journal, June 1967, p 60
  3. “Hawaiian Hotel Opens to Landscape,” Architectural Review, August 1966, p 79 and “Hawaiian Hotel at Mauna Kea Beach,” Architectural Record, October 1964, p 174-175
  4. For information on the Esquire and Fortune articles see, Jim Becker, “Jim Becker’s Hawaii,” Star Bulletin, December 15, 1966, p H20; “Two Island Hotels Win High Rating,” Honolulu Advertiser, November 18, 1967, p C12; and Richard Joseph, “The Three Greatest Hotels in the World,” Esquire, December 1967, p 205 ff
  5. Brown, “Pioneers in Every Sense,” p 79
  6. Joseph, “The Three Greatest Hotels in the World” p 122
  7. Caskie Stinnett, “Mauna Kea----One on the Isle,” Holiday, March 1966, p 26
  8. Horace Sutton, “The Mauna Kea Caper,” Saturday Review, August 21, 1965, p 34
  9. Colby Black, “Rockefeller’s Regal Roost,” Paradise of the Pacific, July-August 1965, p 26

About the Author

Don Hibbard worked for twenty-four years in the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Office, first as an architectural historian and then as division administrator and Deputy SHPO. Two of his books, The View from Diamond Head, (Honolulu: Editions Limited, 1986), and Designing Paradise (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006); consider the development of Hawaii’s visitor industry and architecture as a conveyor of history and a sense of place. He has also co-authored a book on Honolulu architect Hart Wood (2010), and authored Buildings of Hawaii (2011). He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii, and Prentice Hall published his dissertation, The Role of Rock (1983), which examines the social function of rock music. He has taught courses at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University in the fields of historic preservation and architectural history. For the past seventeen years he has provided heritage specialist services for various architectural firms, governmental agencies, and individuals in Hawaii.

Sunny Spotlight: Modernism in Hawaii is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, Mississippi, Midland, MI, Houston, Las Vegas, Colorado, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, South Dakota, Vermont, and Albuquerque. View all Regional Spotlights here.

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Sunny Spotlight Part Two
Preserving Hawaii’s Post War Commercial Development (2022 Update)