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.
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.
- 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 participate in Friends of the Natatorium’s oral history project.
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
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.
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.
The water in the Natatorium is the same as the adjacent beach. Photo by B. Wiedower
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.
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.
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
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.
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!