Hickam housing true to its history


POSTED: Sunday, June 14, 2009

It has been said that if you want to know what Hawaii was like in “;the old days,”; drive onto any military base. It is like stepping back in time to a quieter, spacious and more orderly environment.

For the families who live there, however, it's often just another assignment. They do their duty, then leave. By definition, military housing has no long-term tenants. The wear and tear can be considerable.

Open for business since 1939, Hickam Air Force Base today houses more than 1,600 families. Several years ago, the Air Force let a $1.1 billion, 50-year contract with private contractor Actus Lend Lease to rehabilitate Hickam's housing, and the initial results are being seen this spring.

In addition to new structures, the existing housing is being renovated, with many multi-family units being consolidated and expanded. Most of the units were built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s and represent a unique architectural vernacular.

It's a big job. And not simple. Because Hickam's housing is considered a historic district, the State Historic Preservation Office has a say in the outcome. After negotiation, Actus agreed to preserve one each of the 24 different housing plans in a style that preserves the historic architectural integrity of each design.

How's it going? We met Hickam Community Housing Project Director David Falls and Actus Lend Lease historic preservation specialist Bryan Flower at Hickam's tree-lined Second Street to take a look-see.

“;The first 14 of the 24 are pretty much done,”; said Falls. “;This unit is known as the Type 'C,' a detached, two-story officers' home. The Air Force still has plans for all these structures, many created by Hawaiian Dredging.”;

The architectural style is a simplified Craftsman bungalow with some Art Moderne influences, so now you know. But if you're familiar with local military housing, what you notice first is that much of the external additions that blossomed like barnacles around the structure through the years are gone. No sheds, no lean-tos, no awnings, no temporary walls, no overgrown plants. The tile roofs are new, as is the copper flashing. The neat exterior of the building likely looks much like it did in 1940, except ...

...”;It's more pastel,”; said Flower. “;The colors then were more colorful, inside and out. But they faded quicker.”;

The homes are concrete block atop a poured slab, with interior walls made of metal lathe and plaster.

The ceilings are canec, a building material popular in Hawaii decades ago, made of pulped sugar cane bagasse. But it hasn't been made since the early '60s.

“;We made a faux canec or recycled canec from other sites,”; shrugged Falls.

The floors downstairs, as well as the cast pavers in the lanai, are acid-stained concrete, looking a bit like terrazzo.

“;It really has a distinctive character, doesn't it?”; said Flower. “;It was done a lot in the '30s.”;

The colorful, glassy floors were revealed by pulling up carpet and vinyl flooring and were in surprisingly good shape, as was oak-panel flooring upstairs and the intricate tile mosaic in the bathrooms.

Old architectural plans showed how the kitchen cabinetry was designed so all-new cabinets could be built in accordance with the historic designs. Reasonable changes were made, such as creating a cabinet front for a hideaway dishwasher.

“;Although it's a historic home, everything is up to current code as much as possible,”; said Falls. Modern amenities include air-conditioning, more (grounded) electrical outlets, childproof Venetian window blinds, Art Deco stair railing made more robust and childproof, and cable and computer outlets.

On the other hand, there are myriad design features to remind current dwellers of the past. These include picture railings at the top of all walls, clever space-saving knickknack shelves and, invariably, a tiny bedroom with bathroom located next to the kitchen.

“;The maid's quarters!”; said Falls.

“;And almost always used these days as a home office,”; said Flower.

There are more historic homes on Hickam to be completed, and families selected to move into these units will be briefed about retaining the 1940s ambience. You likely won't see a lot of chrome and black Naugahyde furniture.

“;We're going to be here for some time yet,”; said Falls. “;This is one of the largest historic neighborhoods in the country and we're serious about preserving its special nature. We're in the business of taking care of military families.”;




Hickam in numbers

        » The original plan for Hickam Air Force Base was drawn up in 1934 by Capt. Howard B. Nurse, using the utopian “;Garden City”; philosophy that calls for wide boulevards, open spaces and trees as design elements. Most military housing is generally restricted to rigid street designs following a grid.

» The 2000 Census shows that there were 5,471 people, 1,632 households, and 1,589 families living at Hickam, using at the time 1,718 housing units.


» The airfield site was dedicated on May 31, 1935, named in honor of Lt. Col. Horace Meek Hickam, killed in a flying accident a few months before in Galveston, Texas.


» The first inhabitants were 12 men and four aircraft, transferred from Ford Island on Sept. 1, 1937. They lived in cots set up in hangars still under construction. “;Hickam Field,”; as it was then called, was officially activated a year later and became home base for what was known as the Hawaiian Air Force.