"Our office space is crammed, our visitor space is crammed, capacity is a significant issue on all fronts. Then you've got the structural integrity of the building."
National Park Service superintendent in charge of the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center
STAR-BULLETIN / 2001
Kay Norris and Jean Taylor look at plaques at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center. Portions of the shoreside building have settled as much as 30 inches and continue to slowly sink, causing cracks in the concrete structure.
The Arizona Visitor Center is
deteriorating and too crowded
When the USS Arizona Memorial's Visitor Center was built in 1980, it was designed to accommodate 750,000 people a year, but today the gateway to the sunken battleship's monument attracts more than twice that.
Interest in the Pearl Harbor attack increases as the years go by, and the one-story, open-air building with a view of the famous white memorial that straddles the sunken battleship is literally bursting at the seams.
In addition to being overcrowded, portions of the shoreside building have settled as much as 30 inches and continue to slowly sink, causing cracks in the concrete structure.
"Our office space is crammed, our visitor space is crammed, capacity is a significant issue on all fronts," said Douglas Lentz, the National Park Service superintendent in charge of the center. "Then you've got the structural integrity of the building."
The Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund is in the midst of a major effort to raise $34 million to replace the center, which honors those killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II.
The group -- which features several high-powered honorary chairmen, including actor Tom Hanks and Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and John McCain, R-Ariz. -- wants to raise enough money to break ground for a new center in three to five years.
Mathew Sgan, the fund's senior vice president, said the group is very pleased with its progress and is continuing to solicit corporate donations.
Built on fill material dredged from Pearl Harbor decades before the memorial opened in 1980, the center was designed to settle 18 inches. Its architects built in the ability to lift the building using concrete shims.
The center has been re-lifted four times, which has taken a toll on the structure. The leveling caused cracks in the concrete walls, which exposed steel reinforcing bars to moisture.
Last year, engineers gave the building a life expectancy of just five to 10 years.
Lentz said the new center will be built with lighter materials and piles that go deep into the ground to prevent sinking. There is also an option of building it on a floating foundation.
Preliminary plans for the new 24,000-square-foot visitors center include more restrooms and a 5,400-square-foot museum to display more artifacts.
The current museum is a cozy 2,500 square feet, and barely has enough room for crowds of visitors to squeeze between the displays, which include a Japanese torpedo recovered from the harbor.
Sgan said that as aging Pearl Harbor survivors die, their families often donate historic artifacts and pictures to the museum, but they end up in storage because they can't fit in the museum.
"We could never display everything, but if we had a better facility we could display more and we could also rotate things in," Sgan said.
During the peak summer months, the center averages 4,500 visitors daily, pushing the wait to two hours to watch a 30-minute film that includes U.S. and Japanese footage of the attack and to be ferried out to the Arizona monument, which straddles the submerged battleship.
At the monument, visitors stand before a wall of names, 1,177 sailors still interred inside the sunken hull, and watch rainbow-colored swirls on the water, from droplets of oil that have been seeping up from the ship for 63 years.
The National Park Service estimated the memorial will attract 1.6 million visitors this year, up from 1.5 million in 2003.
Park officials also want to broaden the scope of the museum to include more history about the attack and the Pacific campaign.
USS Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez said the stories will not only focus on the Arizona and Pearl Harbor, but will include other ships and Oahu bases that were attacked that December morning.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said he will push to make funding the project a "major focus" of the House Committee on Resources.
"When this was first put together, nobody had any idea that there was going to be this kind of ongoing response decade after decade," Abercrombie said. "Not only were the intentions good at the beginning, but I think the planning for it was as much as was able to be conceived at the time."
Now, it's clear the whole memorial needs to be revamped, he said.
Some Pearl Harbor survivors, including members of the USS Oklahoma Survivors Association, want the name of the center changed to the Pearl Harbor Memorial or the Memorial of the Pacific to focus on more than just the Arizona.
But the National Park Service said there are no current plans to change the name.
When construction does begin, the memorial will remain open, which means visitors will still be able to watch the film, possibly in a tent.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases on Oahu lasted two hours. Twenty-one ships were sunk or heavily damaged, and 320 aircraft were damaged or destroyed. In all, 2,390 people were killed and 1,178 wounded.