By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
The old Ewart house in Nuuanu is now the new
American Cancer Society headquarters.

This Old House, er, Non-profit organization office structure

From beautifully etched door knobs
to detailed cabinetry, the American Cancer Society’s new
headquarters keeps its sense of place in Nuuanu.

By Burl Burlingame

There are plenty of offices in homes , but how many homes are there in an office? When the offices of the American Cancer Society consolidated into the old Ewart mansion on Nuuanu Avenue last fall, it wasn't like moving into a commercial space.

For one thing, the office was a home. Built in 1906 by Englishman George Ewart for $4,000, the stately Victorian housed the Ewart descendants until recently, who made very few changes to the structure. The building was purchased by the ACS in 1995, and work began to convert it.

The architectural elements were overseen by Spencer Leineweber of Spencer Mason Architects, a firm that specializes in historic preservation. The main building would be used for their Pacific headquarters, an adjacent cottage for the Honolulu treatment center.

The package wasn't cheap, coming in at about $3.3 million - $1 million for the property, $1.3 million for renovations, and $1 million in an endowment to cover operating costs.

Accordingly, there's a fund-raising drive going on, and various portions of the structure can be "named" by donors. There's an open house noon to 5 p.m. Feb. 17 to 21.

One of the first steps was to place the building on the state register of historic place. This was done primarily to preserve the quiet nature of the area, for the sake of the neighbors.

"This part was actually the most hassle," said Leineweber. "Since it's a commercial use in a residential neighborhood, you need a special-use permit. Everything else was pretty straightforward."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Volunteer Merne Farrell works with wigs in what was
the Ewart family pantry.

Locating nonprofits in historic structures is common on the mainland, where it's cost-effective to invest in infrastructure. In Hawaii, however, high prices, governmental disinterest in preservation and scarcity of properties make it difficult. The Nuuanu address was a rare case in which everything fell into place.

"Nonprofits typically prefer to put money into programs rather than structures," said Carol Espinda, Honolulu program director, unless the investment will become a permanent home.

Little had been done to the building over the years so little "back-dating" was needed. Enclosed lanai areas were retained; an elevator was removed; a garage was enclosed, but a driveway entrance was sodded over. Bathrooms were taken out, or enlarged to meet disability requirements.

Microscopic analysis of the paint revealed that the white building with green trim had always looked that way.

"A million shades of white, but always white," said Leineweber.

"It's always tempting for an architect to 'improve' on a design," said Leineweber. "The trick in historic preservation is recognizing what's valuable and leaving it, rather than making our own mark."

The process began with a list of ACS wants - a "BIG list" said Leineweber. "It's hard for the client to visualize these things. You make a floor plan, and then there's a lot of back-and-forth fitting everyone in."

The architects then figured out what could go where. Inevitably, compromises were made. An added kitchen in the back was subdivided into offices. Stairway railings were raised another foot. New windows are made of wavy "restoration glass," imported from the East Coast.

There was little termite damage, except to the rear of the cottage, but several trees had to be removed because of termite s.

Only a few asbestos tiles needed to be removed, and original lead-based paints were encapsulated in new paint. The exterior is a sand finish, also original.

"One of the physical problems was that the building needed to be re-leveled," said John Fulmer, an architect at Spencer Mason. "It dipped about two inches in the middle. That doesn't seem like a lot, but have you ever tried to lift a house two inches?"

Hydraulic jacks took care of the lifting, and the foundation was aligned. This allowed primary changes to the structure for commercial use to take place - increased electrical needs, air-conditioning, more water, more parking.

Althought the house is not THAT big, the 10- to 11-foot ceiling heights, typical for a Victorian, make the home seem spacious. The ceilings are made of canac, a cane bagasse by-product once common in Hawaii. "It's not as good as gypboard, because it's susceptible to moisture damage, but it's lighter," said Leineweber.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
The bannisters on the stairway landing had to be lengthened by
about a foot to meet commercial code requirements.
It's difficult to see the seam on the additions.

Spare canac was recycled from other preservation projects.

The bottom floor is made of oak over the original Douglas fir. The fir is still visible upstairs, peeking around the edge of Persian rugs brought in by designer Charles Black. The color scheme in the interior is a warm light gray, "accurate for the time period, and also comforting," said Leineweber.

Another problem was figuring out where the heavy things, like computers and files, would go. The really heavy stuffs remains on the bottom floor, where the building is stronger.

Color and decoration details are consistent between the main buildings and a rear cottage which retains its Victorian bathtub.

Air-conditioning presented a problem, and the architects went with a multi-unit configuration, with each section serviced by a Mitsubishi Mr. Slim blower. "The hardest part is always installing modern equipment and making it look like it was always there," said Fulmer.

"There are intangible benefits to our new home," said ACS communication director Bud Bowles. "And that's exactly what it is - a home. A comforting place to discuss hard issues."

Espinda agrees. "It's a home away from home, where you feel like you're in a family atmosphere. It's not a cold, austere hospital, and it has the privacy that patients need."

And it's a step up over the old place?

"Oh, that place had no parking, it was dirty - and it was haunted," said Espinda. "No ghosts here!"

Check it out!

What: American Cancer Society Open House
When: Noon to 5 p.m., Feb. 17 through 21
Where: 2370 Nuuanu Ave.
Information: 595-7500

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Community]
[Info] [Letter to Editor] [Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin