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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 1, 2002

It's time to finish restoring natatorium

The natatorium has been described as the crown jewel of Waikiki, historically and architecturally tying Honolulu to a grander, more gracious era.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium attracted crowds during its heyday. Part of the facility has been rebuilt and restored, but its saltwater pool remains unusable.

Advertiser library photo • Date unknown

From the beginning, there have been only two real choices for the natatorium — restoring the entire facility to its original use or letting deterioration through neglect continue.

As a registered national historic landmark, the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium cannot be fundamentally altered or destroyed without approval and input from the state historic preservation office, the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Historic Hawai'i Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and numerous veterans' groups, to name a few.

Eliminating the natatorium is not an option. It never was.

But the greatest affront to our sensibilities is the idea that a national historic landmark and war memorial can be treated with such utter disrespect. Bulldoze the whole thing and create a replica in a more convenient location? Fill it in for volleyball? What's next? A water slide off the Arizona Memorial? Reburials to make room for condo development inside Punchbowl?

What we have been conditioned to view as a white elephant, experts identify as a national treasure. Although the National Trust for Historic Preservation names the natatorium to its "11 Most Endangered Sites" list, we lacked the will to halt 30 years of local politics and deterioration.

Money is available

Contrary to one opponent's statements about the pool being "unfeasible," the project can be brought into compliance with long-awaited state Department of Health regulations and can be finished without additional money from the city.

Full restoration of the natatorium began in 1999. The case for completing the project is simple and unassailable:

  • A thorough environmental impact study was accepted by state officials in 1998.
  • The complete restoration, including the pool, has been fully authorized and financed since 1999.
  • Altering or destroying a national historic landmark and war memorial are not options.
  • There are no legitimate health concerns.
  • The natatorium is a magnificent recreational resource.

Health problems red herrings

Health concerns and saltwater-pool safety have been used as a political tool and scare tactic for project opponents while the public has been kept unaware of facts and science.

For example, in April 2001, the state Department of Health's Communicable Disease Division chief reported: "... there is no national standard for the use of staph (Staphylococcus bacteria) as a water quality indicator; Florida has no rules regarding (its many) saltwater pools; and the state of Washington has dropped staph from consideration as an indicator of quality because of its inconsistent performance overall in predicting illness, because there is no standard test for staph and (because) it is complex to differentiate in a laboratory."

Interestingly, while state health director Bruce Anderson foments concern over staph, he maintains a completely opposite, casual position on other ambient health hazards. On Aug. 6, Anderson, in an effort to allay public fears (and lawsuits) over killer mold said, "... mold is everywhere, experts say. I'll bet my office has mold in it."

The hysteria about staph and infectious diseases in the newly engineered natatorium is totally without scientific merit.

A resource for everyone

Unlike more remote sports facilities such as the Waipi'o Soccer Complex, the proximity of the natatorium to a large number of visitors and residents alike in Waikiki means aquatic athletic events, including the Hawaiian Invitational Water Polo Tournament and swim meets, can be added to the state's push to increase sports marketing and our legitimacy as an international athletic training venue.

In addition to water polo and swimming, instruction in scuba and paddling also is possible. Red Cross training in lifesaving, water safety and "drown-proofing" keiki would be a lot more fun in this open-air, saltwater venue. And let's not forget the unprecedented, safe ocean access that the restored pool will provide to seniors and the disabled.

As was the case in the natatorium's heyday, youths from all over O'ahu can spend a day learning to swim, paddle and play water polo. The size of the redesigned pool, 40 meters by 100 meters by 6 feet deep, means there will be plenty of room for simultaneous activities.

Finally, the Hawai'i Swimming Hall of Fame is considering housing a portion of its memorabilia at the natatorium. This would be a great attraction for tourists and a fitting addition to a noble venue where Olympian Duke Kahanamoku and many others trained.

Several years ago, the city decided to completely restore the natatorium. Though controversial at the time, it was the right thing to do. Since then, the events and repercussions of 9/11 have reminded us all of our vulnerability and of our gratitude to those who serve and give their lives for our country.

Since the natatorium was closed in 1979, we have cheated an entire generation of fond memories of swimming there and have dishonored the veterans to whom the monument was dedicated. Now it's time to fulfill our commitments and finish the work we've begun.

This article was written by C. Bruce Smith, a retired admiral; Peter Apo of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, a former legislator; David Scott, executive director of the Historic Hawai'i Foundation; and John D. Nielsen, president of the Hawai'i Committee of USA Water Polo.