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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 31, 2002

Unity House buys historic Marks Estate

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Unity House, a nonprofit labor welfare organization, yesterday bought the historic Marks Estate in Nu'uanu Valley from the state for $2.5 million, possibly for use as an administrative headquarters.

Preservationists describe the Marks Estate in Nu'uanu Valley as a classic Hawaiian-style residence. Its new owner, Unity House, says it wants to use the property in a way that maintains its cultural value.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"We have not yet determined how Unity House will use the Marks Estate," Unity House President Tony Rutledge said yesterday. "However, we will explore all options, keeping in mind its value to the community."

Jim Boersma, a spokesman for the organization, said that among the options being examined for the property are its use as an administrative center, possibly to include a retiree benefits service area.

The property, which included a 10,000-square-foot, two-story mansion, is listed on both the state and national registers of historic places, which means it cannot be subdivided and must be maintained in a way that will not disturb the basic appearance of the structures.

Rutledge said Unity House also wants to see if there is any private or public money available to restore the property "which is an important part of our culture."

Neighbors have complained in the past about the threat of increased traffic on the narrow Old Pali Road as other uses were proposed over the years, but yesterday were eager to hear what Unity House had planned.

"I sure would be interested to hear what the neighbors surrounding the area are going to say, because they have had concerns from way back as to what or who would buy the property, whether it be a developer or a community organization," said Audrey Hidano, member of the Nu'uanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board.

Board chairman Joe Magaldi said he was pleased the hear about the new owner.

"I'm glad it's being purchased by a local entity which understands the importance of the estate to our community," he said. "As long as they don't plan to have bingo games or other activities which attract big crowds, I'm sure they will be welcome."

The Territory of Hawai'i purchased the property in 1956 when construction of the Pali Highway carved up the Lester Marks lands in Nu'uanu. State preservationists call it a classic example of a Hawaiian-style residence — designed and built in 1929 — with an acre of front lawn, a private mountain stream and inside, a winding staircase and huge mirrored walk-in closet.

The state has been trying to sell the property since 1996, when the asking price was $8.4 million.

Unity House was set up in the early 1950s by late union leader Art Rutledge for Teamsters and hotel workers to provide benefits and services, such as childcare, disaster assistance and other help to union members outside the traditional wage and benefit plans. It has 20,000 members and beneficiaries.

Unity House rushed to submit necessary documents before a public auction of the state property. The auction began at 10 a.m. yesterday at the state's $1.8 million upset price, and proceeded quickly in $25,000 jumps with only one other bidder.

The other bidder, Hawaii Holdings Limited Liability Company, was believed to be seeking the property as a personal residence for an individual buyer, according to the auctioneer, Charlene Unoki of the State Land and Natural Resources Department.

But Hawaii Holdings dropped out at the $2.5 million mark after 10 minutes, and Unity House became the new owner.

Reach Walter Wright at wwright@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8054.