Hawaiian Architecture: In-Depth Account of the Style

The history of Hawaiian architecture procures contributors from various ethnic groups and countries together that defines the current style. Read on to find everything from the history to present.

Hawaiian Architecture

While moving to a different place in search of peace, opportunities, and love, we not only carry hopes with us but indirectly, we integrate things, whether good or bad, at that particular place. Architecture and living standards are the two things that prioritize this list. For instance, when the Portuguese reached India through the shores of Goa, they brought Catholic architecture with them, which is still there and fills the viewer with interest. In the same way, different architects from Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, Chicago, and London contributed substantially to the island of Hawaii with their innovative architecture. In this way, every culture brings a form of structural innovation to a place. Besides, it is crucial to note that every place has different climatic and geological conditions, so people have a hard time adjusting. The architecture here plays a very significant role in helping people adapt. According to the great architect Vitruvius, architecture serves the same purpose as the body in preserving the soul. In my article Vitruvian Man, I made sure that I kept this point very clear. Now, coming back, when I am talking about Hawaiian surroundings, the appropriate architecture for its climate must be the structures, which have open indoor areas to cool trade winds, central courtyards, tropical gardens, and scenic views. Additionally, I have seen that few islands in Hawaii have active volcanic spots, which makes the architect extremely careful when designing a residence. Keeping all these things in mind, it now becomes crucial for all of us to know about Hawaiian architecture for the pleasure of reading. Since architecture is artistic and functional, it becomes crucial for me to make my beloved readers aware of beautiful and pleasing architecture, so that the next time you walk down a street in Hawaii, you instantly recall the story behind it. Having said that, let us proceed to learn the Hawaiian form of beauty.

A Brief History of the Architecture

Before we understand architecture, let us travel back to the pages of history. Architecture in Hawaii, as everywhere, is the continuous enduring evidence of changing civilizations, lifestyles, and cultures. The first settlement of the Hawaiian Islands began around 1500 years ago, when there were no habitants except birds, bats, and sea creatures, as there was no vernacular architecture due to the spectacular volcanic peaks capped either with snow or fiery lava. These were sea voyagers, who moved from the Marquesas in the South Pacific across 2400 miles of ocean, navigating from the stars. And for centuries, the Hawaiian inhabitants lived in isolation, developing self-sufficient and sustained with advanced agricultural skills.

Coming to Hawaiian architecture, the old Hawaii architects were labeled as poe kuhikuhi pu’uone, belonging to the kahuna class, which included priests, physicians, navigators, and other skilled professionals. They designed fishponds, ingenious irrigation systems, temples, and some of the most enduring and culturally significant structures of the period. Interestingly, they made heiau, which were raised platforms made of lava stone and filled with drums gourds, and carved idols, used to perform ancient religious ceremonies, including sacrifices.

If I have to explain the architecture of early or ancient Hawaii, I will call them appropriate for the island’s climatic conditions. The heiau (temples) were open just like the heavens, and the Hale (Homes) were simple hatched huts built with raised stone foundations, which were made of coconut bark, pili grass, and woven lauhala. Even with all these, life in Hawaii wasn’t perfect. As time passed, the peaceful vocations of dishing, hunting, and farming continued to interrupt due to civil wars in which the antagonist tribal kings and chiefs organized competing armies of warriors often related to blood or marriage. It was only in 1778 that British Captain James Cook arrived in the islands, and Kamehameha, the greatest warrior of the Island of Hawaii was 42 years old. And this British explorer opened these islands for the traders, whalers, missionaries, planters, and adventures of Europe, America, and Asia, which changed Hawaii forever. And as seven more years passed, ships from Britain and France, later US, Russia, and Spain adopted the Islands as their regular stop on their trade routes to the Orient. One of the embarking commercial architecture examples of 1816 was the Port of Honolulu. Thousands of foreign merchants and seamen were settling in amongst native Hawaiians in Honolulu, which was being transformed by the arrival of sailing ships, horses, cattle, iron, and cloth. Despite the traditional grass houses still being a prevalent Honolulu home, adobe, and coral-black houses were being built to accommodate the foreigners, especially near the deep-draft part. Note that during this same time, the earliest ballon wooden homes of a prefabrication nature were sent from England to this place, which created a long-lasting impact on the architectural style of Honolulu.

Early Hawaiian architecture of Port of Honolulu painted by Louis Choris

Another good example of early Hawaiian architecture is the Waimea Village, 1778. There were sixty houses on the island and perhaps another hundred on the scattered islands. Consisting of nearly thatched houses clustered behind a fence made of bundles of reeds lashed to pole supports. A gourd vine grows over the walls and roof of one of the buildings. The nearby river and sea probably contributed to the construction of one house on stilts. As no other drawings of this unusual construction have been found in the area, it might have been unique to the area.

You must understand that Hawaiian architecture has five different periods; the Missionary Period, Monarchy Period, the Territorial period, Statehood Period, and the Contemporary period. Let us study them in detail to understand the entire Hawaiian architecture.

1. Missionary Period.

The period belonged to the time 1820-1850. During this time, the Congregationalist missionaries, who sailed for around 168 days from Boston, along with the physicians, teachers, printers, and their families, arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu was then a village of thatched huts, but in August, the industrious missionaries began to work and made the first Christain meeting house and other grass huts, including a school and a small printing house. Upon discovering that Hawaiians were eagerly receptive to the new religion, Reverend Bingham began planning a permanent mission at Kawaiaha’o and a large stone church. 

And after nine months of their stay, they finally introduced Christianity and New England-style architecture to the Hawaiian Islands and thus brought in a change to the Hawaiian architecture.

The architecture of this period was Colonial architecture, seen in civic and commercial buildings, churches schools, and residences throughout New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the famous structures of this period are as follows.

1. U.S Seamen’s Hospital.

Address1022 Front Street, Lahaina
Restoration ArchitectUwe Schulz, 1982

The building was first built in 1833 but then restored in 1982. At first, kauikeaouli Kamehameha III lived here as a part-time residence. Then, in 1844-62, the US government leased it to provide healthcare to seashore workers. The structure has the most notable architectural features consisting of plenty of double-hung windows, protective over-hanging eaves, and a second-floor verandah on the front side.

US Seamen's Hospital in Hawaii

2. Adobe School House.

AddressMission Lane and Kawaiaha’o Street, Honolulu
Designer and BuilderAmos Starr Cooke, 1835
Restoration ArchitectSpencer Mason Architects, 1980

The one-story Adobe schoolhouse was the first schoolhouse built on the islands, where the Calvinist missionaries taught Hawaiian children reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is a super significant building as it is the only surviving 19th-century mud, limestone, and coral fragment building on the islands.

Adobe School Museum Hawaiian Architecture

Other significant structures from this period are Mok’Aikaua Church, Hulihe’s Palace, Lyman Museum and Mission House, etc.

3. Monarchy Period.

The Monarchy period of the Hawaiian architecture had the buildings, constructed during the reigns of Alexander Liholiho, luna lilo, and Kalakaua, which are extremely significant for the Hawaiian heritage as they provide generations to follow with a tangible link to the most colorful period of Hawaii’s history. It was the period of 40 years between 1851 to 1893, which consisted of dramatic political changes, foreign intrigues, and tragedies for the Kamehameha and Kalakaua dynasties. And most importantly, in between these decades, the Kingdom of Hawaii was passed five times, which ultimately weakened Monarchy. 

One of the significant architectural structures here was the Italianate style Lolani palace in 1882 at the cost of 360,000 Dollars, built by King Kalakaua. He then built three other crucial government buildings; Ali’iolani Hale, luna lilo Mausoleum, and Kapuaiwa Hale. Hence, you might understand that every ruler gave a form of architecture that ultimately provided a tangible link for the generations.

Let me now give you a brief overview of the examples of a few crucial structures of this period. 

4. Royal Mausoleum.

Address2261 Nu’uanu Avenue, Honolulu
DesignerTheodore C. Heuck, 186

In the shape of a Latin cross, this Gothic Revival structure was designed as a sacred resting place for royal family members and high chiefs. Designed by German-born Theodore C. Heuck, referred to as Hawaii’s first professional architect. Prince Albert Edward and Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha IV’s remains were the first to be buried in the building. Several of Hawaii’s kings, queens, and other high-ranking alii were interred there before its completion. It was finally renovated and dedicated as a chapel in 1922.

Hawaii architecture Royal Mausoleum, Honolulu

5. Ali’iolani Hale.

AddressSouth King and Mililani Streets, Honolulu
DesignerThomas Rowe, 1874
Restoration ArchitectsArchitects Hawaii Ltd, 1978 and Franklin Gray, 1987

One of the most recognized buildings in Hawaii due to the long-running television series Hawai’i Five-O, it is situated across the street from Loloani Palace, whose name stands for the House of the Heavenly Chiefs. Commissioned by Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha IV, its construction was delayed after he died in 1863. Lot Kamehameha V, his brother, and successor, did not wish to build such a grand palace as he determined that a central administrative center was needed instead for the kingdom. However, Robert Stirling, Kamehameha V’s superintendent of public works prepared the sketches for Ali’iolani Hale, and the later King, David Kalakaua officially opened the building in 1874. The ionic columns, arched entrances, and windows, wall exteriors imitating the European cut stone give this building style of Neoclassical character and monumental stature. The interior setting includes an octagonal rotunda, domed skylight, marble floors, and a curved double staircase, leading to the second-floor mezzanine.

Aliʻiolani Hale in Honolulu Hawaii

A few other structures from the period are Kapuaiwa Hale, the Mausoleum of King Lunalilo, St. Philomena Church and Coronation Pavilion, etc.

2. Territorian Period.

Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893, the Territorian period followed, lasting till 1941. During this time, there was an economic boom in the sugar industry which flourished the construction in the islands, particularly Honolulu and Hilo. Between 1899 and 1905, Honolulu’s inventory of significant architecture greatly increased, but after 1905, the economy slowed, further increasing in the third decade of this period. In the words of Architect William Dickey Merrill, the 1920s were the Golden Age of Architecture in Hawaii. Let me take you to a few examples by which you can see the excellence of the structures.

1. Pauahi Hall, Punahou School.

Address1601 Runahou Street, Honolulu
ArchitectsRiplay and Reynolds, 1896
Restoration ArchitectCJS Group 1991

C. W Dickley is often credited as the architect of the Paauahi Hall at the Punahou School, but he was the designer, and the architects were Ripley and Reynolds. The domed Richardsonian Romanesque-style building would look like a home in Omaha, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. The structure was renovated by CJS Group in 1991 for the school’s 150th anniversary.

Pauahi Hall, Punahou School Hawaiian Architecture

2. Moana Hotel.

Address2365 Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki
ArchitectOliver G. Traphagen, 1901
Restoration ArchitectsVirginia Murison and Chapman Desai Sakata 1991

The hotel was the first largest tourist hotel in the Waikiki. Being a four-story structure, it is one of the most expensive and elaborate hotels on the islands which was completed in 1901. It is the original Beaux-Arts style wood building which Traphagen describes as colonial adapted for Hawaii, featuring 75 private rooms, each having a private bath and telephone. It consists of a spacious high-ceiling lobby and public areas, wide verandahs, and balconies, exposed to the scenic beauty of oceans.

Hawaii Architecture Moana Hotel

Some other structures of the period were Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, the Kawaiaha’o building, the Mormon Temple, the First Church of Christ Scientist, and Yokohama Specie Bank, etc.

3. Statehood Period.

Statehood was the period starting in 1959 when there was finally a new era of growth. The period showcased significant tourism growth, the first jet airplanes landing in Honolulu and more development projects, pumping unprecedented amounts of money into the economy of the new state of Hawai’i. However, with the land around populous Honolulu at a premium, there was the development of apartments and high-rise office buildings, which affected the quality of architecture in Hawaii. Also, with more usage of air conditioning, the traditional structures with the approach to design the residences and buildings to take trade winds advantage were lost. Let me show you a few structures belonging to this period, which may enhance your knowledge of this particular structure. 

1. First United Methodist Church.

Address1028 South Beretania Street, Honolulu
ArchitectAlfred Preis, 1955

Nestled among the trees and buildings, next to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, this structure is the first United Methodist church in a contemporary style design by the architect Alfred Preis. There is the usage of a double-braced exposed beam ceiling in this church, contributing both drama and structural strength to the nave. Side walls made of glass bridge the indoors and outdoors in an appealing way.

First United Methodist Church Hawaii

2. USS Arizona Memorial.

As part of the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the USS Arizona Memorial is a 184-foot concrete structure that bridges the bow of the sunken ship. To flood the structure with sunlight and permit a close view of the sunken battleship eight feet below, the Vienna-born architect Alfred Preis created wide openings in the wall and roof. An Italian marble slab is inscribed with the names of 1177 crew members who lost their lives when the ship went down in three sections of the Arizona Memorial: the museum room, the assembly room, and the shrine room.

USS Arizona Memorial Hawaii Architecture

4. Contemporary Period.

The contemporary period was the final period of the Hawaiian architecture, which dates back from 1971 and is still running in the architectural style. During the 1970s and 80s, despite periodic recessions, Hawaii experienced unprecedented growth in terms of residential projects and resorts. And throughout this period, the sugar and pineapple crops declined as the agricultural lands turned into resorts and lush golf courses. Hence, in the mid-1980s, Dole Pineapple’s parent company, Castle and Cooke, began to plan two luxury resorts in Lana’i and hundreds of luxury homes. This way, though the architecture sector declined in Hawaii, it remained a progressing economy due to tourism. 

One of the significant things to note is that though all these changes were quick, a new interest in regional architecture grew. Suddenly, C.W. Dickey and Hart Wood were again in vogue for their spectacular Hawaiian architecture.

Today, the architecture in Hawaii expresses the appropriate designs for indoor and outdoor living. And Mediterranean-style masonry is famous for tiled roofs, generous eaves, and shady arcades. The ceiling is particularly high for the welcoming ocean and mountain vistas.

Some of the examples are Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, Hawai’i Prince Hotel Waikiki, Princeville Hotel, and Sea Ranch Cottages.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel Modern Contemporary Hawaiin Architecture

Ethnic Architecture in Hawaii.

It is significant to understand that Hawaii is often described as cultural crossroads of East and West due to mixed culture, arts, language, religions, and customs. It is called so because, in the 1850s, the sugar industry began to collapse due to a shortage of labor, as there was a major population decline due to the spreading of Western diseases among the Hawaiian population. Hence, to compensate for this shortage of population, around 400,000 immigrants, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Hispanics, Portuguese, Germans, and Scots, arrived, many of which were recruited to solve the severe labor shortage. Now, while each group contributed uniquely to the Hawaiian mix, the most prominent influence was on the architecture by the Asians. There were usage of Chinese elements like moon gates and turned up eave in residences, sloping roof forms with generous overhangs as its roofs, etc. Similarly, the Japanese temple forms based on Buddhist architecture also contributed to the zen sects of Buddhism in architecture. A few good examples to determine such architecture were the Portuguese Holy Ghost Church, Honpa hangwanji Temple, Izumo Taishakyo Mission, etc.

Famous Architects Responsible in Evolving Hawaiian Architecture.

Now, that we know most of the things about Hawaiian architecture, let us finally read about the geniuses, who were behind this beautiful construction. 

1. Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942).

Widely recognized as the foremost American church architect of the early 20th century, Ralph earned a national reputation for his design of New York City’s landmark Cathedral of St. John the Divine and several other structures in the U.S. In Hawaii, Cram and Ferguson were the architects of the Central Union Church in Honolulu. 

2. Charles William Dickey, AIA (1871-1942).

Called Hawaii’s Dean of Architecture, Charles is one of the best Hawaii architects who expressed a deep concern for developing a tropical vernacular suitable for Hawaii’s climate. He was the one who recognized the need for roof overhangs, broad shady porches or lanais, and interior open-sky courtyards. Some of his exceptional works in Hawaii were Bishop Hall, Pauahi Hall, Hawaiian Hall at Bishop Museum, Stangenwald Building, Hawaii State Libary additions, Alexander and Baldwin Building, Waikiki Theatre, etc. 

3. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924).

Notedly one of Hawaii’s most significant architects of the Territorial period, he was a partner in Cram Goodhue and Ferguson firm. He used the concept of a double-pitched Hawaiian-hipped roof, emphasizing more on the locally available material. He designed the Honolulu Academy of Arts, C Brewer and Company Headquarters, and Girls School Kamehameha School in Hawaii. 

4. Theodore C. Heuck (1830-1877).

Referred as the first professional architect of Hawaii, he is best known for his designs of the Royal Mausoleum and medieval castle-style Lolani Barracks. 

5. Vladimir Ossipoff (1907).

Best known for his environmental approach towards architecture, Vladimir won the 1986 Hawaiian Architectural Arts award for his design of the Dr. Linus Pauling home. He had great hands with the residential style projects. Some of his crucial projects include Hawaiian Life Building, Princess Kaiulani Shops, Punahou Elementary School, etc. 

Some of the other crucial architects of this period are Julia Morgan, Alfred Preis, Hart Wood, and Oliver Green Traphagen. 

End Thoughts.

Hawaii, though known for its peaceful coral beaches, is a true architectural gem. With pineapples, coconut trees, and a multi-ethnic population, it is home to many kinds of architecture amongst the remote Pacific islands. The openness in the interiors, elongated overhang roofs, and larger window proportions are some of the things which make it so special. 


Architecture in Hawai’i by Rob Sandler and Julie Mehta.

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