Walker Estate could face demolition
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
The century-old Walker Estate with its extensive gardens in Nu'uanu appears headed for demolition under a developer's plan to buy and possibly subdivide the historic site.
Honolulu businessman Greg Clark recently informed the state of plans to demolish the main home, gardens and other structures on the property that are listed on state and national historic registers.
The written notice received by the Department of Land & Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Office on Tuesday is horrifying preservationists, but the agency charged with protecting Hawai'i's historic places said there is little it can do.
"I just think it's a travesty," said Nancy Bannick, a longtime historic preservationist. "I don't see how that is legally possible."
Melanie Chinen, Historic Preservation Division administrator, said Clark, on behalf of developer TR Partners LLC and estate owner Holy-Eye LLC, has followed rules governing private property with historical protections.
"We cannot stop him by law from demolishing the property," she said. "Being on the register doesn't mean that a private landowner cannot demolish a historic site."
Clark said the two-story home built in 1905 with eight bedrooms is too expensive to maintain and needs extensive restoration.
"I don't have the resources to preserve it for public or state good," he said. "It's going to cost us millions of dollars. It's not worth it."
The state by law had an option to buy the property through condemnation. But Chinen said her department doesn't have the resources to do that.
So Clark plans to tear down the home and other structures on the 5.7-acre property at the corner of Jack Lane and Pali Highway.
Kiersten Faulkner, Historic Hawai'i Foundation executive director, said the situation demonstrates the inadequacy of state law that relies on the goodwill of owners to value and maintain privately owned historic property.
"It's disappointing," she said.
Walker Estate owner Holy-Eye, an affiliate of a Taiwan-based Buddhist church, has owned the estate since 1998.
TR Partners, which includes Clark as principal and local developer Tom Enomoto, has a contract to buy the estate for more than $10 million, according to Clark.
The partnership earlier this year applied to build 20 homes on the property, but the application was deemed incomplete and rejected by the city several weeks ago. Clark yesterday said plans to develop the property are undecided.
Clark estimated that restoring the main house would cost more than $1 million. He said a secondary home, a garden pagoda, and grounds once described as the finest private garden in Honolulu are in worse shape and also won't be saved, though more than 20 exceptional trees on the property will not be destroyed.
"We do not plan on harming any of the exceptional trees," Clark said, adding that the trees either will stay on the property or be relocated.
Commencing demolition work depends on the developer obtaining a city permit, which Clark said he intends to seek immediately.
It's unclear whether the city could withhold a demolition permit.
A city Planning and Permitting Department spokesman said a demolition permit for a historic property will require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
Chinen, with the state Historic Preservation Office, said her department will recommend that the city not issue the permit, but the decision is up to the city.
"This is one of the last examples of a historic estate in urban Honolulu," Chinen said.
The estate was established 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.
Rodiek built the original two-story home and a series of gardens featuring ferns, rocks, orchards and what is thought to be the oldest formal Japanese 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, Una, hosted elaborate private parties and public events at the estate, including guided tours of the gardens.
ADDED TO REGISTERS
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 children, who cited costly upkeep and tax consequences for having to sell the property.
The city considered a purchase, but passed because of the expense.
A year later, Japanese billionaire Masao Nangaku of Minami Group (USA) Inc. bought the estate for $8.5 million. His intent was to restore the original home for use as a corporate retreat and 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.
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.
Holy-Eye earlier this year petitioned a state review board to remove part or all of the property's gardens — but not the main home — from historic registers. A state attorney, however, advised the Hawai'i Historic Places Review Board not to consider the request in June.
The review board, made up of private professionals including historians and architects, was told a decision would be up to the state Historic Preservation Office, which indicated it wouldn't support the plan.
Reach Andrew Gomes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Una Walker after death left the Walker Estate to her children. Recipients were misidentified in a previous version of this story.