Little grass shack rebuilt


POSTED: Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Those who live in grass houses shouldn't throw stones. Is that how it goes? Not? Anyway, as Hawaii Hall is being reborn, there is a building within the building that is also getting the full restoration treatment.



Former Bishop Museum director Don
Duckworth called Hawaii Hall a
”;museum of a museum,”; a dusty
time capsule of the state-of-the-art
in museum display technology—during
the Victorian era. The challenge is how
to preserve the unique character of the
historic structure while making it a
modern, safe repository for some
of Hawaii's most sacred artifacts.
Every month for the next year, we'll
examine the nuts and bolts of how
Bishop Museum and their expert
craftsmen and preservation architects are
making that happen.


The Hale Pili, or “;grass house,”; in the central courtyard of the century-old Bishop Museum structure, has been stripped down and reassembled by a dedicated team of Hawaiiana specialists, some of whom never dreamed they'd be hands-on with a real Hawaiian home.

And it's real, BTW, not a reconstruction, nor a replica. The original dates back to the early 1800s, abandoned by the banks of the Waialua River on Kauai. Shortly after Hawaii Hall was built, the building was shipped to Oahu and reassembled in 1904. (The cost at the time was $370.)

The architectural artifact's second career was as a museum display. “;It's the oldest exotic hale existing in the islands,”; said Betty Lou Kam, vice president of Cultural Resources. “;Prior to that, who knows what it was used for? A home? Storage? A shelter? We know it was built and touched and used by human beings as a functional structure. We can use our imaginations, which is always more fun.”;

Trail boss of the project is Pomaika'i Kaniaupio-Crozier of the cultural consulting firm LeoKanaka, which has enlisted Hawaiian craftsmen as well as high-school students. “;There have been a few challenges!”; laughs Kaniaupio-Crozier. “;Learning how to thatch—and gathering long-leafed pili grass after a dry season.”;

Pili isn't the same stuff as the grass on putting greens. The blades are long, thin and water-resistant and, when cured, last a long time.

“;A lot of the places you'd normally harvest pili are being encroached upon—one of the sites is where the Stryker brigades are—and it's also been dry the last couple of years,”; said Kaniaupio-Crozier, “;A lot of forest fires ate a lot of grass.”;

This particular hale was thatched on the inside, as well as the outside, making for a cozier structure, albeit one that required double the pili and also disguised much of the framework.

“;One surprise, for me at least, was that when the pili was removed, the vertical members of the structure were made of at least three very different kinds of wood. They used what was at hand, what was available,”; said architect Glenn Mason, whose firm is tasked with the nuts and bolts of Hawaii Hall's restoration. The woods used were naio, kauila and uhiuhi, as well as lama—none of which are easy to find anymore.

Some sections of the frame had termite damage and dry rot, and had to be replaced. Kaniaupio-Crozier said restoration teams bumped up against the Department of Land and Natural Resources on occasion when trying to gather replacement woods. “;But they'd usually give us a lead on where to find it elsewhere,”; he said. “;Some older guys also had bits in their wood collections to help piece it back together. Sometimes we just need three inches. It's not like you can pick up the wood cut, dried, milled and stacked at Home Depot.”;

And then it all had to be tied together again, using an estimated two miles of replacement woven cordage and original Hawaiian knotting.

Another “;concern was the stone platform, which was too high and obviously held together with mortar,”; said Mason. “;The plan is to make it more realistic, with dry-fitted stones.”;

Also, there was a century's collection of dust on it. “;You just can't vacuum a grass house!”; said Kam.