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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, August 14, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The Korean Christian Church on Liliha Street had a flared
green-tiled roof and detailed friezes painted on its rafters.

Soul survivor

The Korean Christian Church has
been torn down but will be rebuilt
to resemble the old one

By Burl Burlingame


HONOLULU, the city where the architectural past is largely disposable, just lost a unique building, the Korean Christian Church on Liliha Street, the only example of its type in the islands, was an imposing reflection of the colorful Kwang Wha Mun gate of the ancient palace in Seoul.

Where the church was a month ago there is nothing. A flat field. No surprise. That's the way the facade crumbles in Honolulu.

But wait. It's coming back. Sort of.

The church was built in the late '30s and towered three stories over the street, with two flared green-tile roofs that overhung the walls and revealed detailed friezes painted on the rafters, columns and window frames. The roof had bird sculptures. The sanctuary itself was long and tall with a pitched ceiling and sidedoors that opened onto lanais.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The interior of the church is cleared prior to demolition.

The church is actually the second Korean Christian church in the area, replacing a barnlike structure on School Street. One of the founders was Dr. Syngman Rhee.

The building was a landmark, and a community anchor. But it had problems. Even a house of God is prey to secular settlement woes. It was cracking apart. It was coming asunder.

"That whole area is known for subsiding soils," said preservation architect Glenn Mason. "I'm not surprised it affected a large building like that."

Don Hibbard, director of the State Historic Preservation Division, said "The building had tremendous structural problems.

"We visited to see what we could do to help. Unfortunately, because they're a church, there's no tax incentive to preserve the historic facade. It's disappointing for us, but they were the ones facing the economic reality of the situation."

Preservation sparkplug Nancy Bannick, said "It's sad that something gets in such shape that there's no choice but to tear it down.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Prior to demolition, the fixtures of Korean Christian Church
were sold off. John Larsen considers salvaging the leaded
glass doors and windows for a house he is building.

"On the other hand, they realized the building was so special that they intend to recreate it."

That's right, recreate, not rebuild. The church sold off as many fixtures from the old building as the public was willing to carry away, and then razed the structure. Yong Jin Kim, manager of the church's building committee, said the church that will rise in its place will also look to the Kwang Wha Mun gate for inspiration, and the new facade will be similar to the old facade.

"The footprint will be exactly the same," said Kim. "There will be differences behind the facade -- we won't have the lanais, for example, so there will be more interior room, and it will have a metal roof -- but the main thing is that it will be steel frame construction, not wood. And it will sit on a kind of structural sled, like it's floating on the soil."

The government of Korea is donating a little more than $600,000 to the $2.8 million project and church fund-raisers have brought in about half of the balance. The only immediate hold-up is with city building codes, which don't address traditional Korean architectural styles.

"I think we're going to have to add lots of hurricane bracing," said Kim.

Star-Bulletin file photo
Its unique design made Korean Christian Church an
architectural as well as community landmark.

David Scott of the Historic Hawaii Foundation is pleased at the effort to replicate the elements that made the original building special. "It's not a perfect solution, but it's one that makes economic sense for them," said Scott. "I believe that elements of the building are even going to be prefabricated in Korea and shipped here for assembly.

"We've lost many religious buildings over the years, and that's too bad, because they're almost always striking architecturally, but beyond that, religious building are about people. They are centers of the community. And when one is torn down, some of the soul of the town goes with it."

"This place is becoming terrible, everything's being torn down," said Bannick. "We've lost so much of what made Honolulu special. The government isn't much help, and they seem to think it's up to private citizens to preserve Hawaii's fragile sense of place. There are no carrots to encourage builders to preserve, other than their own conscience. Surely, with what the church is attempting in Liliha, there are some lessons here to be learned."

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