Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, January 27, 2002



This greeting card reflects the romantic image of a balmy evening in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian when it was one of only two belles on the beach.

Pink jubilee

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
celebrates 75 years as a cynosure
of grace and style on
the beach at Waikiki

By burl burlingame

Certain cities and special hotels have a symbiotic relationship. It's difficult to think of New York without the Plaza, of the Imperial without Tokyo, of Singapore without the Raffles, of the Dorchester without London. To that short list, the "Pink Palace" -- the Royal Hawaiian Hotel of Waikiki Beach -- has a pride of place.

In fact, it's impossible to think of Waikiki without the Royal. It seems to have been there forever, a stable sea anchor in a continually mutating skyline of flimsy high-rises. But the Royal Hawaiian is only 75, young enough for many to remember her christening.

The structure has a hold on our collective imagination, our shared history. An elegant oasis, an eyot of timeless charm in the hurricane of modernity, a swelligant flashback in the golden haze of Art Deco pop-culture. Why does the Royal Hawaiian stick out so among the stacked racks of sleeping containers in Waikiki?

Birthday celebration

A dinner celebrating the 75th birthday of the hotel and the Honolulu Academy of Arts:
Dinner time: 6 p.m. Friday
Place: Monarch Room, Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Cost: $200, benefiting the art academy
Attire: Black tie or Roaring '20s
Call: 532-6099

"Because," explained preservation architect Glen Mason, "it's pink."


"Heh! It's because, more than most buildings, it carries its real and imagined history with it. We remember the glow of its heyday, or what we'd like to think of its heyday -- the pastel lights, shiny cars, beautiful people in gorgeous clothes, the dedication to service, the fabulous proximity to the ocean.

"High-class, very upper crust tourism. It was also built in a time when space was very important. It has high ceilings, wide halls, and the grounds were landscaped and large. It wasn't originally hemmed in like it is now. But when you're inside, and you see the ocean through the windows and archways, it's easy to forget the rest of Waikiki exists."

The Royal Hawaiian is also, Mason points out, a very substantial structure, with thick, heavy stone-and-stucco walls. At the time it was built in the mid-'20s, it was one of the largest construction projects in the Pacific. The Moana Hotel, which predated the Royal by 26 years as the primary large hotel in Waikiki, was still a Victorian design and made of wood. ("That the Moana still exists is a miracle," said Mason.)

This is one of the hotel's original skeleton keys.

The Royal was so substantially constructed, in fact, that as it neared completion, one end began sinking into Waikiki's swampy sands. Emergency jacks and bridge-type trusses were quickly hustled underneath and stabilized the structure. They're still visible in the basement.

Although the Royal Hawaiian is considered today an icon of "Hawaiian" architecture, it's actually Mediterranean, built in the spate of large projects in the '20s that had similar, design criteria -- City Hall, the Hawaiian Electric Building, the C. Brewer Building, the Academy of Arts, etc. -- in which architects (mostly from elsewhere) decided that because Hawaii was warm, then warm-weather structures from Iberian and Italian peninsulas were suitable for copycatting and transplanting.

In general concept, the Royal Hawaiian is Southwest Mission Revival; in design details, it's vaguely Moorish, which is "suitably appropriate to the imposing size of the building," said Mason. But it's actually a pop-culture artifact of the period; Rudolf Valentino Sheik movies were popular, and movie palaces and other large buildings of the '20s went through an Arab-Deco craze.

It's not even the first Royal Hawaiian Hotel. That honor goes to a King Kalakaua-named structure next to 'Iolani palace -- at the site of the rehabbed YMCA building -- and it was torn down the year construction started on the beachfront Royal Hawaiian.

The hotel was constructed because the Matson shipping company was bringing more and more visitors to the islands, and they needed a place to stay, a place with the same character and service as a cruise ship.

Construction took a year and a half and required thousands of sandstone blocks, 35,000 barrels of cement, 75 miles of wire, 50 tons of stucco and 9,000 gallons of paint. The architects were Warren and Wetmore of New York, and the cost was in excess of $4 million.

"It's naturally ventilated, being built in a time before air conditioning, and that helps it become part of the environment," notes Mason.

Guests enjoy afternoon tea in the lower lobby of the Royal Hawaiian. Note the hostesses wearing kimono, a practice that ended after December 1941. Shown below is one of the hotel's original skeleton keys.

Grand opening

The hotel opened on Jan. 31, 1927 with a huge party, swank in the extreme. "GAIETY MARKS FORMAL OPENING OF ROYAL HAWAIIAN" the Star-Bulletin headlined above the fold on A-1, so it must be true. The event included a pageant the paper called both "colorful and semi-barbaric," and some folks who were there then, will be here now, for the anniversary.

The hotel was leased to the Navy in 1941 to give submariners a place to R'n'R. "We still have veterans coming in with snapshots, trying to relocate the exact same spot," said public relations wrangler B.J. Whitman.

The hotel management carefully sealed up a well-stocked wine cellar and were relieved to discover in 1945 that the sailors hadn't stumbled upon the location.

After the war, the hotel's furnishings were updated, and the current decor reflects this period. In the late '60s, real estate in Waikiki exploded and the hotel largely disappeared from view, although through the doors, time stood still.

The Royal Hawaiian celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1977; during celebrations next week, a time capsule placed then will be opened.

"We began to look around for other organizations that had similar goals, and discovered that the Academy of Arts is also turning 75," said Whitman. "They're doing wonderful things, such as film series and architectural tours.

"Then we created a 75th Anniversary logo that was added to our famous pink terrycloth robe, a Copenhagen plate, menus and a special run of the 'Pink Palace' book about the hotel. The opening night menu will be reproduced, with some minor changes -- you can't have turtle soup anymore, so we'll have mock-turtle soup! -- and there are special tour packages for guests."

Fronted by barbed wire along Waikiki Beach in 1941, the hotel served as a place of respite to submariners when it was leased by the Navy.

Different tastes

While the hotel has always been popular with Americans, Asians seem to prefer the tower buildings facing the ocean, while Europeans tend to pop for the older, more historic digs. It's a cultural preference.

"The hotel doesn't lose its charm, ever, because we're facing the ocean, and we're nose-to-nose with Diamond Head," said Whitman. "We're in touch with the environment and pleasures of Waikiki.

"We have a rich history of returning guests. Originally, movie stars and celebrities lived at the hotel, and there are still some folks who stay months at a time. We even keep some of their favorite furniture in storage

"It's certainly, for some people, a lifestyle of a few privileged individuals. But anyone and everyone stays here. It's not the color of the architecture that draws them for the first time, or back for years. It's the people. Our people know the guests. It's the sense of continuity, of growing up with aloha spirit and friendship, of ohana and family. Some returnees don't ask for a particular room, they want a room on Juanita's floor, for example.

But why is it pink?

"You can speculate until the cows come home, but the truth is, no one knows for sure why it's pink," said Hawaii pop-culture historian DeSoto Brown.

"The color simply stands out against the green of the island, comparable to Tripler in effect," said Mason.

"In Japan, pink is a good-luck color," said Whitman. "Go figure."

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