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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

YWCA: Renovations will restore historic building's feature

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Richards Street building housing a branch of the YWCA was designed by architect Julia Morgan more than 75 years ago.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

If walls could talk, the Richards Street YWCA would be a motormouth.

Generations of Islanders have learned to swim, throw clay, play the 'ukulele and relax there. Thousands of women have learned job skills ranging from sewing to carpentry in its classrooms. Untold numbers of kids have practiced basketball, karate, fencing, tennis and aerobics in its old-fashioned gym. Who knows how many people met their future spouses at the hundreds of dances, receptions, theatrical events and socials it has hosted? Hundreds of thousands of meals have been served in its open-air cafe.

It's a sure bet, though, that very few of those people ever noticed the small, stylized letter M in a column near the building's highest point.

They'll have a second chance to look for it tomorrow when the YWCA takes part in the annual Capital Day Down Capitol Way celebration, which throws open the doors of 11 historic buildings in the downtown area, offering tours, food and entertainment.

The hard-to-spot M is believed to be the signature mark of Julia Morgan, the groundbreaking architect who designed the open-air Beaux Arts building more than 75 years ago with a combination of grace and solidity that has charmed visitors ever since.

"You really have to be on the lookout for it," said Cheryl Kauhane, chief executive officer of the YWCA of O'ahu. The signature M is located on the third floor, diamondhead side, above the pool; it's best seen from a second-floor arcade above the pool. "And if you're really sharp you can see the little dove patterns that Morgan put in all the end tiles of the roof."

That type of attention to detail in a public building was characteristic of Morgan, dubbed one of the millennium's top 100 women by Women.com. The touches are tucked everywhere in the YWCA, one of Honolulu's first reinforced concrete buildings.

"In general, the building is in really good shape," said William Brooks, director of architecture for Ferraro Choi and Associates, which has been picked to do a $2 million renovation of the YWCA. "There's a certain honesty in poured concrete that gives the building its special feel."

The renovation will include the lobby, Elizabeth Fuller Hall and existing locker rooms, new bathrooms and a leadership center.

Morgan was an architect ahead of her time. Born in 1872, she was the first woman to graduate from the College of Engineering at the University of California- Berkeley and went on to study at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. Returning home to start an architecture business, she struggled at first but became popular when one of her buildings withstood the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

By the time she was picked to build the YWCA building in Honolulu in the mid-1920s, her practice was thriving. Among her famous buildings are the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the restored Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and several churches in the Bay Area. She already had worked in Hawai'i, remodeling the Atherton family's Waikiki beach house and turning the family mansion on King Street into a hotel for women (both buildings eventually became property of the YWCA and were later torn down).

Morgan's work at the Richards Street YWCA is an enduring masterpiece, though.

Its great open spaces for the courtyards and pool are balanced with fine decorative details on nearly every beam, girder or arch. Its strong walls are countered with delicate wrought-iron grillwork calculated to cast decorative shadows throughout the building. Everywhere there is a sense of openness and natural light, so unlike many of the downtown high-rises that abut the YWCA today. The outdoor tiled pool seems almost Islamic; the big courtyards are certainly Mediterranean.

"In the gym there are swirling, rounded touches on the arches that certainly didn't need to be there," Kauhane said. "They are the types of little things that all our users over the years have appreciated." (The basketball court, which still has its original wooden floor and open-air walls, is half-sized because in 1925 most people didn't believe women could — or should — run up and down a regulation court.)

Morgan came to Honolulu only once to see the site and design the building. She was too busy elsewhere to hang around; by then she already had been working for six years on a far grander project, the perpetually expanding castle that publisher William Randolph Hearst was building in San Simeon, Calif. — the one with 58 bedrooms, 60 bathrooms and 41 fireplaces. So she turned supervision of the construction over to one of her engineers, Bjarne Dahl, who sent weekly progress reports and rolls of photos home by boat.

When workers removed the wooden forms from the concrete on June 18, 1927, a newspaper reported: "A spacious lobby, sitting rooms, library, a gymnasium, outdoor swimming pool, game rooms, club rooms, classrooms, restrooms, community room, cafeteria, picturesque loggias and balconies took definite shape."

Morgan was proud of the building's strong simplicity, calling it "unusually frank and sincere architecturally. There is practically no false work."

Over time much of the building's original splendor was covered up by modern "improvements," Brooks said: vaulted arches hidden by drop ceilings, great halls subdivided, large rooms turned into small meeting spaces, a small chapel used as a janitor's room.

Much of the restoration work, the first phase in a planned $7 million project, will try to bring back some of the 1920s feel, which still can be seen in original millwork, furniture, moldings and other details throughout the building, he said.

Today, the building remains heavily used, with hundreds of people taking part every day in classes, exercises, activities and just eating lunch in the cafe.

"It's really sturdy — and beautiful," Brooks said.

Shortly before her death, Morgan closed her architectural office, instructed the building superintendent to burn her files and destroy any business records except plans claimed by clients. When she died at the age of 85 in 1957, those orders were followed.