Discover / Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial
Save a National Treasure
Honolulu, HI
TYPE: Monument
Photo by Donna L. Ching
Photo by Donna L. Ching
Return to the Waikiki Natatorium to its status as a vibrant aquatic facility and world-class public amenity.


The Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial — built in 1927 to honor the 10,000 Hawaii citizens who served in the First World War — is a one-of-a-kind resource; no comparable structure exists in the United States. The City of Honolulu’s current plan is to demolish the Natatorium, construct a beach in its place, and reconstruct the entryway. As a place that both memorializes Hawaii’s sacrifice in war and celebrates its indigenous swimming traditions and Olympic legacy, it is a site that is unique to both Hawaii and the nation and should be reopened for future generations to enjoy.

National Significance

On the eve of the Centennial of World War I, the Natatorium is the most recognizable representation of the participation of the citizens of the Territory of Hawaii who served. It honors Hawaii’s first involvement in a national event of such magnitude following its annexation by the United States in 1900. The Natatorium is also one of the first “living memorials” in the United States, serving as a public recreational facility where generations of Hawaii’s children learned to swim.

Campaign Goals

  • Prepare a viable re-use plan for the Natatorium to operate as a vibrant aquatic facility and community resource
  • Mobilize public support for re-use by engaging the public in the environmental review process expected to begin in June 2014
  • Work with key stakeholders to secure permits for a rehabilitated site that assures the protection of public health and safety

Ways To Help

Donate to our campaign to save the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial

Share your memories of visiting the Natatorium by participating in Friends of the Natatorium’s oral history project.

Posted on August 24, 2015

Today Google released a Google Doodle featuring Hawaii’s most famous waterman, Duke Kahanamoku, and his iconic 16-foot, 114 pound wooden surfboard.

Duke, who would have turned 125 years old today, was a legendary competitive swimmer and a key figure in the history the Natatorium. In 1911 he broke the world record for the 100 meter freestyle by 4 ½ seconds in Honolulu Harbor. He would go on to win five gold medals in swimming for the U.S. in the next two decades (despite the cancellation of the 1916 Games during World War I). Many believe that Duke’s accomplishments were the inspiration to build the Natatorium as the Territory of Hawaii’s official War Memorial.

Duke was such a legend following his Olympic successes that he was invited take the inaugural lap in the Natatorium. In fact, the opening ceremonies were timed to happen on the occasion of Duke’s 37th birthday, August 24, 1927. The crowd roared as Hawaii’s “Ambassador of Aloha” plunged into the pool before a packed house. “I will never forget it,” he later exclaimed, “the intense interest shown by everybody, the color, that wonderful Waikiki pool. I had to rub my eyes and pinch myself to see if it were not all a dream.”

Here is a video of Duke winning the 100-meter freestyle at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, his second gold medal in the event. Also check out some vintage footage of Duke surfing at Waikiki Beach.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on March 27, 2015

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

Ocean pool at Bronte Beach in Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy Sarah Heffern)
Ocean pool at Bronte Beach in Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy Sarah Heffern)
As the debate continues about how the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium can be re-purposed to meet modern standards for ocean swimming, let’s do some comparison shopping.

Australia’s world-famous rock pools are the best examples on the market. The country has more than 100 public seawater pools on its rocky coastlines, most in and around Sydney in New South Wales. Dr. Marie-Louise McDermott has published several articles on the role of the still-operable baths in Australia’s history. Her research led her to conclude that they are “places of refuge, therapeutic and restorative environments, adventure playgrounds, convivial public spaces, visually appealing cultural landscapes, brands, icons and symbols.” To see Ms. McDermett’s photographs you can visit her flickr photo stream here

Next let’s turn to Copenhagen harbor in Denmark. It would have been unthinkable to swim alongside the former industrial lands along the City’s shoreline in years past. But the Municipality of Copenhagen has taken proactive steps to make this water safe for swimming. In the past 15 years it has developed four harbor baths, which have become hugely popular among locals and tourists. Water quality is carefully monitored so visitors can be assured that they are not at risk from harmful bacteria. See photos of the most well known of the baths at Islands Brygge here.

The Copenhagen model has proven that pools can co-exist in modern environments where pollution is an issue. Taking it a step further, New York City is now working in close collaboration with a group called +POOL to create a water-filtering floating pool in the Hudson River. According to the +POOL website, the 200’ x 200’ pool would operate “like a giant strainer dropped into the river,” to become an iconic piece of public infrastructure while maintaining high water quality inside the pool.

Finally, we turn to the chilly waters of the St. Lawrence in Montreal, Canada. You might think the cooler climate would deter people away from swimming. Au contraire. Just last week Montreal’s Mayor Dennis Corderre announced a plan to open up the Old Port to build a harbor bath and create a swimmable shoreline in the St. Lawrence River and a unique urban amenity.  

The common denominator in these examples is that there is a strong demand to create swimming opportunities in even the most challenging, post-industrial urban environments. Cities have used and are planning to use state-of-the art technology to meet these demands, building iconic aquatic facilities while ensuring the protection of public health and safety. In its decision-making process for the future of the Natatorium, the City of Honolulu has an excellent opportunity to learn from these examples to re-purpose its icon on Waikiki beach.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on November 10, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

VFW Bikers Gather at the Natatorium for Veterans Day in 2013

On the “11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1919 the Armistice was signed near Compiègne, France, ending one of the most cataclysmic wars the world had ever witnessed. It was a particularly significant event for the United States as the end of the first war where American soldiers served abroad. Each year November 11 is commemorated as Veterans Day, in remembrance of all U.S. service

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was built in honor of the more than 10,000 from Hawaii who served in the “Great War.” The Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, in collaboration with the Friends of the Natatorium, host an annual commemoration ceremony, which will take place at 11:11 a.m. Hawaii time. Tomorrow’s activities include speakers, a lei presentation,  buglers taps and distribution of poppies to guests. Servicemembers from every major conflict since World War II will be present including soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coast guards. members, and provides a time for us to reflect on its origins as a day of truce with the promise of peace to come.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on August 26, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

Last Friday we delivered 1,161 letters to the City of Honolulu from concerned supporters of the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial from around the world. The letters were submitted ahead of the City’s deadline for public input on an EIS Preparation Notice which outlines its proposed plan to demolish the iconic site.

U.S. Army Veteran Craig McGinnis hands off more than 1,100 letters supporting preservation of the Natatorium to a City of Honolulu staff member. Photo: D. Ching
U.S. Army Veteran Craig McGinnis hands off more than 1,100 letters supporting preservation of the Natatorium to a City of Honolulu staff member. Photo: D. Ching
When the comment period began, we were initially disappointed that the City would not provide an email address or online form which could have sparked much more public input. Instead, the City had required that all comments be printed and submitted via mail to two independent addresses.

With your help we rose to the challenge. We hosted a website where our supporters could comment online. Last Friday, in collaboration with the Friends of the Natatorium we consolidated, printed, mailed (to two addresses), and hand delivered the enormous package.

We made statement. The letters overwhelmingly spoke of concern for demolition and the need for the City to study a feasible preservation option in the forthcoming EIS process.

One of the major highlights of the submission was a letter to the Mayor from the congressionally-chartered World War I Centennial Commission. Vice Chairman  Edwin L. Fountain wrote  that the Natatorium ranks among the most significant” of World War I memorials in the nation. It continued,

“in no instance that we know of has a state or US territory significantly altered, let alone demolished, its official World War I Memorial. To do so would be widely regarded as a gross disservice to the memory of the people for whom the memorial was erected…”

The Commission sent an identical letter to Governor Abercrombie.

The National Executive Committee of the American Legion weighed in as well. We submitted a resolution it passed in May supporting preservation efforts “to honor those servicemembers lost and injured during World War I.”

stacks of EIS comments

Most importantly, our supporters weighed in from all corners of the country. We expect that many of the touching personal notes to the City staff will be influential in convincing the decision-makers why the Natatorium should be preserved:

“My husband and I personally visited this location several years ago and found it to be a very moving and thoughtful place, and we hoped that it would be renovated, not destroyed to create another beach.”

-          Martha Singleton and Walt Walkington Miami, FL

My Aunt Ethel Hobbes was a Nurse in WWI. She died while taking care of troops who had contracted the Asiatic Flu. She was only 20 years old. Please save this memorial in Honolulu. History should never be forgotten. The sacrifice of our WWI service personnel is part of the fabric of what makes us Americans.

-          Jane Varcoe, Waymart, PA

At the 100th anniversary of the "war to end wars," we need more, not less, reflection on the use of violence in human affairs.

-          John Breihan Baltimore, MD

As both a teacher and historian, I'm hard pressed to explain how important these monuments are in helping young people to learn about, understand and appreciate their past. 

-          Jim Shucart, Kirkwood, MO

My husband and I are fairly regular vacationers in Honolulu. We love, love, love, this piece of the beach, the zoo, the park, the New Otani, the overviews and particularly our strolls along the waterfront at the Natatorium. My initial reaction is, "have you lost your collective minds?"…Honolulu is ground zero for water sports and surf capital of the world. You really should move this facility forward in kind with that global image of your town.

-          Amy Gilreath, Boulder city, NV

I want my children to be able to come back to Hawaii and see this awesome historic site. Please save it!!!!

-          Ann Wilson, Scott AFB, IL

As an architect and preservationist, but mainly as the grandson of man who was a prisoner of war during WWI I am that very disappointed that demolishing this memorial would even be considered.

-          James Golden, AIA Pinellas Park, FL

As a kid growing up on Oahu in the 60s and 70s, we would spend countless hours swimming in and clambering around the memorial

-          Jonny Pray Venice, CA

My family grew up using the Natatorium. It is inextricably woven into the history of Oahu. No: an arch does not equal a natatorium. An arch does not provide residents with what the natatorium did. We used it, a lot, because some of us were less confident out in the open water. It is unique, has a history, and efforts should be made to work towards preserving and refitting it.

-          Margaret Mori, Campbell, CA

Once again, thank you! And please stay in touch as our efforts continue to save this important part of our national heritage.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.



Posted on August 19, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

Late last month the City of Honolulu released an EIS Preparation Notice outlining its plan to demolish the Waikiki Natatorium.  To our astonishment, the Notice mischaracterizes the project as an “improvement” to Kapi`olani Regional Park. 

If approved, the project would be the first intentional demolition of a World War I Memorial we know of anywhere.  And we can’t help but note the irony that the proposal comes as the world recognizes the 100th year anniversary of the start of the war this month. (One notable commemoration project worth checking out is Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, at the Tower of London). 

We are urging our supporters to take action by signing this letter which urges the Mayor of Honolulu to study a preservation alternative that is financially feasible,  respects the integrity of the Beaux-Arts style monument, and which is wholly unique resource in our nation. We will be printing and hand delivering the letters this Friday, sending a resounding message from across the country that  destruction of a war memorial would be unconscionable. 

Thank you, as always, for your support!

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on July 14, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

rainbow over the Natatorium
Credit: Clinton Gaughran, 2011

On July 21, the City and County of Honolulu will host a public meeting to discuss future plans for the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial. It will be held at the Kaimuki High School cafeteria at 2705 Kaimuki Avenue in Honolulu. See this brief letter from the City’s consultant for further information on the purpose of the meeting.

Monday evening’s event will be the first opportunity for the public to comment on the environmental review process currently underway for the Natatorium. The City has emphasized all options are still on the table. Your voice is needed to change the project from demolition to repair and rehabilitation.

While the City’s proposal has been to remove all of the Natatorium’s existing façade, stadium seating, and swim basin, we are shifting the momentum towards repair, avoiding an unnecessary tear down on the shores of Waikiki. The National Trust recently penned this letter to the consultant representing the City, outlining why preservation is far preferable to demolition of such an important cultural icon. We have joined with our partners the Friends of the Natatorium and the Historic Hawaii Foundation to emphasize how wasteful and irresponsible demolition would be, especially considering the historic value of the site (their excellent letters are available here and here). 

Please attend the meeting if you are able and speak up for the preservation of one of the Nation’s most treasured historic places. While it won’t be the last opportunity to comment, it is crucial that those who want to see the Natatorium restored to its former glory speak their minds early and often.

For further information, the Friends of the Natatorium has prepared this list of bullet points to make sure that the City hears loud and clear the concerns with demolition from both a cultural and environmental perspective. Let’s do away with the bulldozers and focus efforts on re-establishing a world class public amenity in Waikiki, which appropriately honors those who served.

Posted on June 10, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

The Waikiki Natatorium is the only place of its kind to swim in America, and one of just a handful of such sites in the world. It promotes ocean-based recreation as a protected venue for salt water swimming with engineering that allows for a tidal flow exchange. In other words, its water is the same as that you are swimming in at the neighboring beach. Case in point: one kapuna I spoke to who swam there as a child told me the story of a barracuda that would hang out beneath the decking that gave divers a glimpse of the rich marine life all around it.

swimming in the Natatorium
The water in the Natatorium is the same as the adjacent beach. Photo by B. Wiedower
It turns out that this fundamental feature of its design matters a lot in the debate over the future of the venue. The critical question is whether the State’s administrative rules related to swimming pools apply. If so, they could require hugely cost prohibitive improvements such as a concrete-lined bottom and sides. At 47,000 square feet, that’s a lot of concrete…about $20 million worth, in fact. And that's just one of the expensive, unnecessary upgrades that has been proposed which has lead to the false assumption that rehabilitation would be more expensive then demolition.

If you’re hoping that state regulators would have more sense than to hold this unique place to the same standard of your local YMCA pool, we think you’re right. Consider that the Rules define a “swimming pool” as containing an “artificial body of water.” The water in the Natatorium is not harnessed in a way that lends itself easily to that definition. While it has the perception of being separate from the ocean, it is actually a part of it. 

Waikiki Natatorium beach venue
A small beach has developed on the mauka end of the Natatorium swim basin - Photo by Brian Turner

And even if it can be loosely defined as a "swimming pool," the story doesn’t end there. The rules exempt all “beach venues,” places that have man-made alterations to the shoreline and include a beach. Putting in a sandy shoreline at the water’s edge of a rehabilitated Natatorium is clearly feasible and should be considered as an option. And, as we witnessed on our last site visit, some sand has already accumulated there.

Demolishing the Natatorium to address pool safety standards would be truly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We hope to partner with the City on a sensible solution for the site that does not require extraordinary – and unnecessary - expenditures.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on May 21, 2014

Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager

Interview with Fred Wong, 88, who was just 8 years old when he swam in the Natatorium
Interview with Fred Wong, 88, who was just 8 years old when he swam in the Natatorium

What better way to kick off a preservation campaign than with a good story?
One of our campaign’s key goals is to build a vision of the Natatorium as the community centerpiece it once was. Since it has been shuttered for almost 35 years, fewer and fewer each year hear the stories of its role as a community resource and social center in Waikiki.
In light of this challenge and in anticipation of today’s National Treasures announcement, the Friends of the Natatorium embarked on a project to film short interviews of the old timers who swam in “the tank.” As children, they swam in the same water as the Olympian legends that made Hawaiian swimming world renown. And they make very real the story of what “could be” at a place that has nearly been forgotten.
Formal interviews began yesterday and will continue today and tomorrow at Elks Lodge 616 in Waikiki, just a short walk from the site itself. The videos will be uploaded to the Friends’ YouTube channel.
To contribute memories to the oral history project, email Mo Radke to schedule an appointment.
Please check back often for additional updates on the Waikiki Natatorium. Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

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Anonymous on May 21, 2014
I think this article is missing some photos of it! I added one here!
Jill Radke on May 21, 2014
Although I was not old enough to swim when it was closed, I swim at Sans Souci beach and Queens Beach all the time and wish that I could swim in the sheltered water of the Natatorium like so many generations have. It could be a safe, beautiful place to swim once again. Bravo to the National Trust for recognizing it's importance.
Dennis O'Shea on May 20, 2014
I'm only a visitor to Hawai’i, but I've come to really love it. It has a sacred past and a culture that values that sacredness. It recognizes how important memory is to who we are and what we become. It reveres the people and the places that are important. People like Eddie Aikau. People like Duke Kahanamoku. Places like Waimea Valley. Places like the War Memorial Natatorium. And so it mystifies me: Why – given this reverence for history, for culture, for inspirational people; given this special sense of place and purpose – why is there any question at all in Hawai’i about preserving, restoring and reopening the Natatorium? Thank you, National Trust, for getting involved. Let's do this thing!

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Campaign Overview

Trust Investment

The Trust expects to invest approximately $400,000 over the next two years to help set the Waikiki Natatorium on a trajectory toward rehabilitation and reuse.


Special Funding Needs

$50,000 – To hire on-the-ground field staff support to engage local audiences with a specific focus on obtaining public participation in the environmental review process

$150,000 – To create a professional business plan with a focus on creating a sustainable governance and financing model.

Please let our team know if you would like more information on how to support these projects.

The Big Picture

Once permitted, a rehabilitated Natatorium which is open to the public will require an estimated $20 million public and private investment.



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