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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 15, 2002

New coffee-table book tells Kapi'olani Park history

By Wanda Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Kapi'olani Park is Hawai'i's Central Park. It is where Honolulu folk gather to play games, to snooze in the grass, to picnic, to perform, to hold club meetings, to work out, to stride joyfully and dripping sweat over the finish lines of competitive runs and charity walks.

Polo was a part of the Kapi'olani Park landscape for decades. Among those who played "the sport of kings" there was Gen. George S. Patton.

PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN • Hawai'i State Archives

It is, like that elephant in the hands of the blind men, something different for everyone.

And it always has been, a point made clear in a new coffee-table book, "Kapi'olani Park: A History" ($24.95, hardback), by Robert R. Weyeneth and contributor MacKinnon Simpson.

In bookstores now, the book is published by the Kapi'olani Park Preservation Society, a nonprofit group which is court-sanctioned to serve as a monitor of the park's governance and to be the facility's most vocal, enthusiastic and sometimes contentious advocate.

Preservation society president Jack Gillmar calls the park a "landscape of controversy." Society member Nancy Bannick explains, as does the new book, that "all the way through, there have been tensions because of people's different visions for the park. All the way through, people have had to make decisions."

Chat with just a few park visitors and you'll see how many different faces the place has for Honolulans.

To Kiana Rodrigues, the park's periphery is "my health club." A secretary at a nearby hotel, she walks around the park for exercise each day. "No dues, great views," she quips.

To Buddy Lee, the park's heart is the bandstand, where he fell in love with his wife. It was at a free afternoon concert with Arlo Guthrie in summer 1970. "I looked over at her, sitting cross-legged on the grass and singing along and I said, 'This is the one.' We still come here to picnic on the anniversary."

To Summer Kawashita, it's a playing field. "Seems like I'm always bringing my kids here for some tournament or game or picking them up or handing out potluck from may tailgate," she said.

To Miss Lei Cabral, age 4, it's the zoo where she can "see da animal," she whispered from behind her mother's blue-jeaned leg.

Historian Robert R. Weyeneth recognized the impressionistic nature of the park — the myriad bits of inspiration and vision, altruism and entrepreneurism, civic pride and pursuit of pleasure that went into making it what it is. He was commissioned to research the story of the park for a report to Honolulu officials in 1991.

Controversies over use

This picture, taken during an Independence Day military exercise in 1921, shows Kapi‘olani Park racetrack just a few years before it closed. Horses continued to be part of the park’s landscape until the 1950s, however.

PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN • Hawai'i State Archives

He found that much of what passes for fact about the park is fiction:

• That King Kalakaua named the park for his consort, Kapi'olani, after an American tour showed him the importance of public open spaces.

This is what the king may have wished his subjects to believe, but the park's origins stemmed from a plan by a group of well-connected people to create a leasehold resort for wealthy holidaymakers, and to get a top-quality racetrack going. The king was a shareholder. Mac-Kinnon Simpson, who designed the new Kapi'olani Park book, uncovered one of the royal shares of stock in the archive; its photo is in the book.

• That it was the first public park in the Islands.

Though both Kalakaua and Queen Kapi'olani said so in their opening-day speeches, several public parks on O'ahu predated this one.

• That it is, in the conventional sense, a city park at all.

Actually, the park, composed primarily of former crown lands, began as a development overseen by the private Kapi'olani Park Association in 1876, was placed in a trust directed by the Honolulu Park Commission in 1896, and came under the management of the city and county in 1913. It is still a charitable trust whose board of directors now is the Honolulu City Council. It has never been purchased by the city and can never be used for any purpose other than as a "free public park."

To get at the truth of even these three ideas involved half a book's worth of research for Weyeneth. And there was no shortage of other issues, among them the complex transactions that saw some of the "lost lots" around the park's green space return, finally, to the trust (and others sold off), and the continuing controversies over proper use of the park as allowed (or disallowed) by the language of the trust. The concern a while back was a failed effort by Burger King to open an outlet at the zoo; now the hot button is art sales along the zoo fence.

Once a military camp

The book opens with a wide-ranging article about the development of landscaped parks in urban America. Subsequent chapters — arranged by period from 1876 to the present — are a critical and nuanced examination of the role of Kapi'olani Park in O'ahu's life.

James B. Castle, third from right, built his waterfront mansion, Kainaliu, in 1899. After his death, his wife sold it to the Elks’ Club.

PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN • Hawai'i State Archives

Weyeneth toyed with the idea of finding a broader audience for his report, but his departure from Hawai'i and new research projects distracted his attention.

Now a professor at the University of South Carolina, Weyeneth was delighted when preservation society president Jack Gillmar contacted him one day to propose a partnership: the society would hire a designer to create a visual frame for his words if he would update the text and allow the society to sell the book as a fund-raiser. Weyeneth agreed, and the work commenced at what in publishing counts as a furious pace, with the book going from idea to reality in just over a year and a half.

The preservation society sought out underwriters to cover the costs of producing the book, so all proceeds will fund society activities, including costs associated with litigating park-use issues. The Gannett Foundation, the charitable arm of the company that owns this newspaper, was a major contributor.

For designer Simpson, uncovering the pictures for the book and writing the side-bar articles that are one of its most charming features was a series of small, pleasing adventures.

Cruising e-Bay, a favorite source of information and images for him, Simpson discovered a whole scrapbook of pictures of the period when the park was used as a military camp. He couldn't afford to buy the collection for the book, but he was able to get permission to use the works from Hawai'i collector Jeremy Uota.

The parks' first 50 or 60 years predate color photography, so Simpson had to "dig and dig and dig" to find color images — among them the highly romantic frontispiece shots showing a man and two boys lounging on the long-gone banks of the waterways that once wound through the park; it's a hand-tinted stereopticon slide.

Last streetcar shelter

Among those most enthusiastic about this project was Bannick, a photographer and an active member of the effort to preserve and restore the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium across the street from the park. She has captured the park's many moods and chronicled the lives of its features and neighboring buildings, including the sad destruction of Kainaliu, the James B. Castle beach house on the site of what is now the Elks' Club. (Her photo essay depicting its last moments is in the book.) She has campaigned to preserve the park's structures, notably the last existing streetcar shelter in

Honolulu, which she helped to have rebuilt in 1975. And, having lived within steps of the park ever since she moved here in 1950, she has enjoyed its amenities almost daily.

"It's a wonderful open space. I love all the activity there, and the greenery, the tradition, the history, all set off by Diamond Head," said Bannick. "The purpose of the book is to educate people about the park so they can understand what we're trying to preserve here, and why certain activities aren't appropriate within the trust framework."

So many groups, businesses and individuals want to use the park that the pressure on the area is tremendous, Bannick said. The preservation society's commitment, based on its reading of the trust documents, is to favor periodic events and festivals over week-in, week-out use by special interests, and to carefully limit commercial uses.

It's an ironic truth, Bannick said: "To make it possible for many people to use it, you have to put restrictions on it."

• • •

A true or false quiz

1. Kapi'olani Park was the first public park in Hawai'i.

2. You once had to cross a toll bridge to get into the park.

3. An ostrich farm once flourished there.

4. Papa'ena'ena Heiau was there.

5. A federally-protected wetland exists there.

6. The park was established by a private corporation as a beachside resort.

7. When it was first opened, Kapi'olani Park had no beach access.

8. The Natatorium was home to a puffer fish that smoked a pipe.

9. Only the abrupt end of World War II prevented a housing development in Kapi'olani Park.

10. There once was a bowling alley in the park.

11. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin once ran a regular airline at Kapi'olani Park.

Quiz answers

Finding 'Kapiolani Park: A History'

"Kapi'olani Park: A History," is being distributed by Native Books. It's available at Native Books, Na Mea stores and at all major bookstores, and will be among books sold at the Hawaiian Historical Society annual open house and book sale, 4:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the society's library and reading room at the Mission Houses Museum.