Restoring the Natatorium

City to the Rescue

The city has an $11.5 million plan
to restore the historic arena,
but there are doubters

By Rod Ohira
Photo by Dean Sensui

Resurrecting the glory of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium Waikiki will come at the price of $11.5 million, in a project the city aims to begin early next year and finish within 14 months.

It's a controversial undertaking for a unique facility that will involve environmental studies, a high-tech water-circulation system, and the commitment for upkeep after restoration.

"It's hard to overstate the importance of the Natatorium to the world of aquatics," said Dr. Samuel James Freas, president of the International

Swimming Hall of Fame based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on a recent visit. "The Natatorium has the potential to be a magnet for aquatic events and an economic boost for the city."

But state Deputy Health Director Bruce Anderson, for one, says spending $11.5 million to restore the 70-year-old structure is a mistake.

"I just hope the city is not spending millions to build a white elephant," he said.

Changes and concerns

More than half of the $11.5 million already approved by the city will be used for demolition ($1 million), exterior wall construction ($1.1 million), and the swimming pool and deck area ($4.46 million).

Ben Lee, Mayor Jeremy Harris' chief of staff, said the city hopes to have by year's end the 13 permits and approvals needed to start the project.

Plans call for the pool's reinforced concrete walls to be replaced with a "smooth impervious material (that) shall be able to endure the effects of the saltwater environment," a new sandy bottom, as well as new concrete bleachers, showers and changing rooms, offices, comfort stations and landscaping.

A new removable ramp or hydraulic lift would give the disabled access to the pool, which has a depth of 7 feet at high tide and 5 feet at low tide.

But the plan does not include a diving tower or diving board, a main attraction in the Natatorium's heyday.

Four new openings on each end of the pool would take advantage of a natural coastal flow to flush the pool an average of 10 times a day.

"We're looking at a natural flushing circulation system," said Ed Pskowski, vice president for the Leo A. Daly architectural firm, which is preparing an environmental impact statement.

"The existing design has holes that are 18 inches in diameter, which is why it got clogged," Pskowski said. "We've learned from past mistakes."

The deep Ewa end, where the flow would enter the pool, is a dredged reef with no impediments, while proposed groins on the Diamond Head end would minimize the flow of sand into the pool.

This improved circulation will address state Health Department concerns about water quality and clarity, Pskowski said.

Anderson, however, is not convinced the project can meet swimming-pool standards.

"Clarity is the stopper," he said. "With saltwater, you are in a situation where water clarity can't be controlled. We want the issue addressed up front so it doesn't become an after-the-fact problem."

"The only requirement we have for public swimming pools is that we have to be able to see a 6-inch disk at the bottom for safety reasons," he said. "So we either have to grant them a special exemption or change the rule so it doesn't apply to saltwater pools."

The rule ensures that swimmers in distress at the bottom of a pool can be spotted immediately, Anderson said.

What about upkeep?

Then there is upkeep, a chronic problem for the Natatorium almost since its 1927 opening. The firm Leo A. Daly estimates that annual operation and maintenance will cost $318,000.

Friends of the Natatorium, a nonprofit group the city wants managing the restored Natatorium, proposes to use assets from facility operations -- a snack bar, gift shop and museum -- solely for maintenance.

The group plans to hire a full-time executive director to oversee operations; its board of directors would raise funds. The board would report to the city's parks director and submit annual audited financial statements.

But while the organization wants to charge $2 for residents and $3 for visitors to use the pool, the city is opposed to such fees, Lee said.

Friends of the Natatorium also would like to bring back the public schools' learn-to-swim program. Other proposed uses include rehabilitation swim programs, water-safety training for lifeguards, water polo matches and swim meets.

The reservations

In a March 7 letter to Mayor Harris, Anderson noted:

"The question that nobody seems to be willing to ask is, do we really need a saltwater pool? Although use is not dictated by the Department of Health, there are viable alternatives to a pool that could be considered.

"The suggestion that the building be rebuilt and converted to a multipurpose facility is a good one from a health and safety standpoint."

Anderson added, "The Friends of the Natatorium mean well and have worked hard to promote the idea of restoring the pool. It is possible, however, that they have let their emotions get in the way of common sense.

"Who is going to pay to swim in a pool when one of the best beaches in the world is free next door?"

Some former users had mixed feelings about reopening the Natatorium.

"It sounds like a railroad job to me," said former surfing champion Joey Cabell. "For the most amount of public use, I think they should have a beach there."

He added: "I'm also afraid that once they start the project, they'll find that $11.5 million won't be enough to finish it and they'll have to use more taxpayers' money."

Swimming great Keo Nakama, who competed in swim meets at the Natatorium in the 1930s and also hosted meets there, also has reservations.

"I think only a certain segment of the population would go there because there are so many swimming pools now," said Nakama, who works out at the Nuuanu YMCA pool. "I don't know if I would go back there to swim."

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Cracks in the deck expose water below.

Facility was not
kept up the first time

By Rod Ohira

A saltwater swimming pool with a coral-reef bottom requires special care -- but the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium was not properly maintained from the beginning.

Fourteen months after it opened, Star-Bulletin Sports Editor Don Watson wrote in October 1928: "Unless some funds are obtained for upkeep of the Natatorium, it will not be an asset very long. There is an investment of something in the neighborhood of $300,000 out there at the Natatorium and it does not sound like good business for the taxpayers to allow such an expensive structure to go to pieces just because it would take a few dollars to keep it in shape."

Watson noted that the diving tower was rusting, pontoons at both ends of the pool were damaged, and sections of the reinforced concrete structure needed painting.

No action was taken until 1949, when the Legislature set aside $70,000 for major repair work and turned over management of the pool to the city.

The Natatorium gradually fell into disrepair again and the pool was shut in 1963 when its outlets to the sea became clogged by seaweed.

By 1965, many city officials were calling for the pool to be demolished instead of spending more than $250,000 for repairs.

An April 1996 report prepared by Friends of the Natatorium notes, "Piecemeal maintenance and repair were inadequate to combat the influences of nature and by the 1960s, the water had become murky and the pool bottom unclear."

The Department of Parks and Recreation closed the Natatorium permanently in 1979.

The diving tower at the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium
was a popular feature in years gone by The top platform was
36 feet above the water. This photo was taken in April 1949.

Natatorium evokes
childhood memories

Children lined up to jump
off the 36-foot-high diving platform
into the murky water below

By Rod Ohira

On summer days in the '50s and early '60s, kids had to wait in line for a chance to jump from the War Memorial Natatorium's 36-foot-high platform.

Boasting four levels and a sliding board, the tower's two lower levels were high enough for most young jumpers, but children were not permitted past the third.

"I didn't go there to swim, I went to jump off the platform," said former world champion surfer Joey Cabell, who owns the Chart House restaurant at the Ilikai Marina. "It was so high and so scary but so much fun.

"The Natatorium was also a place to hang out in the '50s," he added. "There was always a cross-section of kids there. But jumping off the tower was a real thrill and that's what brought us there."

Calbert Ching, 49, of Hawaii Kai, also has fond childhood memories of the platform.

"The pool was kind of scary because the water was so black and you didn't know what was in it," Ching said. "You always heard stories about the eels at the bottom."

"When you hit the water, you always tried to get out quickly without touching the bottom. But once you were out, you couldn't wait to get back up and jump again."

The Natatorium's heyday lasted from 1927 through the World War II years.

"We had international meets in the 1930s that a lot of people came to watch," recalled Keo Nakama, 77, who became the first person to swim the Molokai Channel in 1961. "Because of the buoyancy of salt water, a lot of world records set were not recognized."

During the '50s and '60s, thousands of Oahu fifth-grade public school students learned to swim at the Natatorium. For many, the dark, saltwater pool was filled with secrets of the deep.

"I was walking on the side of the pool and saw a turtle come up for air," recalled Mildred Yoshimura, who was attending Manoa School when she learned to swim there. "After that, I didn't want to go into the water because I was worried about what else was in there."

Veteran Hawaii swim coach Al Minn, who grew up in Kapahulu, says there were many ways to have fun at the Natatorium.

"Around 1938, it was a great place to play," Minn said. "I enjoyed swimming in the pool and diving off the boards. But it wasn't only a place to swim.

"We played volleyball and basketball on the courts outside and it was a nice meeting place."

After six years of political hassling, the $252,000 War Memorial Natatorium was built in 150 days and opened on Aug. 24, 1927, by hosting the AAU National Outdoor Swimming Championships.

It was the second opening of a major sports facility on Oahu in nine months as Honolulu Stadium opened on Veterans Day 1926.

Tickets for the swim meet were expensive -- $1.10 for reserved seats, 25-50 cents for general admission -- but opening night attracted 6,000 people, creating a massive traffic jam and confusion in Waikiki.

"Thousands of automobiles, milling around helplessly looking for openings, trying to edge in any old place, prowling through the darkness of the polo grounds, searching everywhere for a parking space," reported Dave Heenan for the Star-Bulletin. The Natatorium was packed with spectators -- as was every tree outside with a view of the pool.

They came to see world sprint champion Johnny Weissmuller, who beat Duke Kahanamoku in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, duel Japan's Katsuo "Flying Fish" Takaishi, over 100 meters.

Although Weissmuller lowered his world record set the day before in qualifying to 58 seconds, the first night belonged to Hawaii's Clarence "Buster" Crabbe, who won the one-mile swim in 21 minutes, 52.25 seconds.

Olympian Kahanamoku returned home for the first time in five years to attend the opening and celebrated his 37th birthday that night by swimming a 100-meter freestyle exhibition.

After the four-day meet, international swimming official John Taylor called the Natatorium "one of the best, if not the best, swimming arenas in the world."

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

© 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin