A brief history of the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial
Hawaii’s 1921 Territorial Legislature funds construction of the Living Memorial with its 100 X 40 meter saltwater swimming pool was built to honor 101 who died and the nearly 10,000 others who served in WWI from Hawaii with $250,000.
Opened on August 24, 1927, the birthday of Olympic Gold Medalist and godfather of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, who dives in for the first ceremonial swim before a cheering, capacity crowd.
During its heyday, the Natatorium hosts celebrity swimmers including Esther Williams, Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller as well as some 34 members of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It is later also used by the DOE for its mandatory elementary school Learn to Swim Program. Hawaii’s last Olympic swimmer learned to swim at the Natatorium.
Owned by the State but operated under and executive order by the City, the Natatorium is closed in 1979 due to thirty years of neglect. Prior to its closure in 1979, the last recorded public investment in capital maintenance was $100,000 in 1949.
On both the National and State Registers of Historic Places. Named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered list in 1995.
In 1997 the same team that designed the highly successful Ko’olina Swimming Lagoons completes an exhaustive study of coastal conditions, structural integrity and construction alternatives. After considering everything from removal to modifications to full restoration, the State concludes that complete restoration with a re-engineered pool is the most sensible option. The re-designed pool would be Hawaii’s only fully ADA-accessible saltwater swimming venue with lifts for wheelchair-bound swimmers to enter the pool.
By 1998, the EIS is accepted, all permits are in place, and full funding ($11.5M) is provided by the City and County of Honolulu for complete restoration for the Natatorium.
In 2001, locker rooms, the bleachers and façade are repaired before a small but vocal opposition group uses the Department of Health to put the restoration on hold. The DOH takes three years to promulgate saltwater pool rules. By this time, construction team has demobilized, a new administration has taken over at Honolulu Hale and the project is halted.
In 2005, the remaining appropriated funds (about $6.4M) is released back to the general fund.
A full account of the conception, design and construction of the Natatorium is told in the final chapter of the 1928 book, Hawaii in the World War by Ralph S. Kuykendall, available online here. For more information on the Natatorium and the fight to preserve, restore, revitalize and renew Hawai’i’s official World War I memorial, please visit Historic Hawaii Foundation’s special Natatorium section here. For the facts on why preservation and revitalization of the Natatorium is the right course of action and demolition is a bad idea, read our fact sheet.