Developer targeting esteemed Walker Estate
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
The century-old Walker Estate in Nu'uanu could be carved up under a plan to build homes on the property and remove part of the estate from state and national historical registers.
A prospective developer recently applied for city approval to develop a large piece of the 5.7-acre site, which is owned by an affiliate of a Taiwan-based Buddhist church.
The home on the estate would retain its historical status under the proposal. But the estate's owner, Holy-Eye LLC, has a contract to sell the property and recently sought state approval to eliminate the historical designation that protects the estate's gracious gardens from development.
It was unclear how many homes the unidentified developer plans. Under the city's zoning rules that apply to the Walker Estate, roughly 20 homes may be allowed.
The former Walker residence is one of the few intact estates built in Nu'uanu Valley around the turn of the century. It features what is thought to be the oldest formal Japanese garden in Honolulu.
The notion of developing the site has alarmed preservation groups, including the Historic Hawai'i Foundation and the Outdoor Circle, but may also raise the hackles of residents who have long feared that the property would be cut up and developed.
"The residents really don't want any type of subdivision," said City Councilman Rod Tam, who represents area residents and as a legislator in the late 1980s helped community members oppose a plan by a Japanese billionaire to use the property as a corporate retreat.
William Yee, a neighborhood resident who once ardently opposed a plan for a commercial chapel on the Walker Estate primarily because of traffic concerns, said he's not surprised that someone wants to subdivide the estate today. "The price of homes has skyrocketed," he said.
GARDENS IN CONTEXT
Kiersten Faulkner, Historic Hawai'i Foundation executive director, said removing the estate's gardens from historical registers goes against what helped the property qualify for protection.
"Removal of the grounds from the registers would have a severe detrimental effect on the historic integrity of the residence and an understanding of the historic context," she wrote in testimony she prepared for a state board reviewing the proposal.
Faulkner also noted that the late Una Walker, the wife of Henry Alexander Walker for whom the estate is named, led the effort to obtain historical status for the estate.
"She clearly was a strong believer in the importance of protecting and preserving Hawai'i's heritage, and led by example by registering her own home as a historic property worthy of preservation," Faulkner said.
"Every subsequent owner has known of the property's historic status, and the benefits and responsibilities that come along with that recognition."
Bob Loy, director of environmental programs for the Outdoor Circle, said there are more than 20 exceptional trees on the estate that he fears would be harmed by development.
"We don't think you can carve up the 5-acre Walker Estate and adequately protect those exceptional trees," he said.
Since it was built in 1905, the Walker Estate has been noted for its elegance, but also has been caught up in a few significant controversies.
The original two-story home with eight bedrooms was built by George Rodiek, an executive with H. Hackfeld & Co., a firm that became American Factors and then Amfac Inc., and was one of the Big Five companies that dominated Hawai'i's economy for decades.
Several gardens were created, including the Japanese garden and others of ferns, rocks and orchards that collectively have been described as the finest private garden in Honolulu.
Rodiek left Hawai'i and sold his house during World War I because of his German citizenry, and the property was later acquired by Henry Alexander Walker, president of Amfac and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association.
Walker and his wife hosted elaborate private parties and public events at the estate, including guided tours of the gardens.
With Una Walker's support, the estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 1982, it was also listed on Hawai'i's historical register.
After surviving her husband, Una Walker died in 1987, leaving the estate to her grandchildren who at the time said costly upkeep required them to sell the estate.
The city considered a purchase, but passed because of the expense.
To Japanese billionaire Masao Nangaku, expense was not an issue, and in 1988 the head of Minimi Group (USA) Inc. paid $8.5 million for the estate. His intent was to restore the original home for use as a corporate retreat, and to build a second home on the property in which to live.
Nangaku's "preservation" plan drew a mix of community opposition and support, and was approved by the city in 1990. Nangaku spent $3 million restoring the Classical Revival-style frame house, earning the project a Historic Hawai'i Foundation award.
But financial troubles in the mid-'90s stopped Nangaku from building the additional residence, and resulted in a deal to sell the estate to a partnership planning to operate commercial weddings on the property.
Local attorney Richard Fried and partners in 1997 applied for a city permit to build a 2,500-square-foot chapel on the estate. The city rejected the plan, but Fried's group completed its purchase for $4 million in 1998 and, according to property records, resold the estate the same day to Holy-Eye for $5 million.
Last year Holy-Eye listed the estate for sale, asking $12.9 million. The church group's broker, Chaney Brooks & Co., said a sale is in escrow but declined to identify the buyer because of confidentiality agreements.
City Department of Planning and Permitting director Henry Eng confirmed on Tuesday that an application was submitted for a "cluster" development on the property bordering Pali Highway and Jack Lane.
Eng said the application is under preliminary review and that he would have to research how many homes are being proposed and by whom. Eng did not provide those details yesterday.
Recently, Holy-Eye asked the Hawai'i Historic Places Review Board to remove part or all of the property's gardens from the state and national registers of historical places. The board advises the state Department of Land & Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Division.
The board was to consider the issue at a meeting last weekend, but it didn't. Made up of private professionals including historians and architects, the board consulted with a state attorney at the meeting who advised them that they could not rule on whether to remove the gardens from the historicalregisters. Instead, that determination would need to be made by the state Historic Preservation Division without a recommendation from the advisory board.
Melanie Chinen, Historic Preservation Division administrator, did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, but indicated in a fax to the nonprofit Historic Hawai'i Foundation that her office opposes removing the gardens from the historical register.
"The gardens are a contributing member to this property's importance," Chinen wrote in the fax, a copy of which The Advertiser received.
Reach Andrew Gomes at email@example.com.