Happy 40th Anniversary to HHF! Historic Hawai‘i Foundation’s official launch date as a nonprofit organization was June 12, 1974. At that time, a dynamic and diverse group of highly skilled and courageous individuals came together with a common vision to preserve the unique historic places that make Hawai‘i special and relay the story of Hawai‘i’s exceptional history.
Three of the founders and current HHF members, Bob Fox, Jan Atkins and Charles Black, agreed to share some experiences from HHF’s early days, the context in which the organization was formed as well as offer a few observations about the state of preservation in Hawai‘i today.
The interview has been abridged for space and clarity.
Historic Hawai‘i Foundation: Tell us a little about yourself and your background and interests.
Bob Fox: I am pleased to have the opportunity to be a part of this exchange of ideas and memories of the founding of Historic Hawaii Foundation and how it has flourished today.
While I was going to school in California, studying architecture I became very interested in Historic Preservation. The school was in a small town with many historic building. In my last year I studied architecture in Japan. I was fascinated with the historic and contemporary buildings of Japan. I traveled a great deal and visited many historic and contemporary and historic buildings and historic sites, and my thesis was titled a Comparative Analysis of the Transition of Japanese Architecture. This experience developed into a lifelong interest in Historic Preservation.
Charles Black: I was born and raised in Hawai‘i, a fifth generation descendant of Amos Starr Cooke and Hiram Bingham. (Hiram Bingham was the first missionary who arrived here in 1820.) I graduated from Punahou and watched the Pearl Harbor bombing from Tantalus where I lived. I grew up in Hawai‘i during the war years and shopped in Chinatown. Significant in that one of Historic Hawai‘i Foundation’s first projects was saving Chinatown. With that and having grown up around old mission houses and Punahou, I was surrounded with a lot of Hawaiian history.
I had been involved with the Mission Houses and Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society and in 1965 I was asked to sit on the Board of Mission Houses. The major project we undertook for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the missionaries was to turn the old site into a teaching document museum inclusive of all of the objects, houses, history and archives. The archives include the largest collection of books written in Hawaiian. At the time, Thurston Twigg-Smith was president and I was vice-president and we worked with architects to turn it into a live museum. I became president in 1970 at the time of the 150th anniversary celebration. Leading up to that, I promoted the history of the first missionary years and traveled with some very well-known historians including Albertine Loomis who wrote “Grapes of Canaan: Hawai‘i 1820” (the story of the first 7 years), to all the islands. (As an aside, “Grapes of Canaan” was used by James Michener when he wrote the book “Hawai‘i”.) On all of the islands we visited congregational churches and I had the opportunity to meet with and speak in almost every congregational church in the state. What that says is historically I was developing a background in and familiarity with not just the churches but the people who supported the history of the islands and the significant buildings and sites. An example is learning about the heiau and the importance of the original structures’ remnants and the importance of them to the Hawaiian people.
Jan Atkins: An Army brat and used to extensive travel, I was stationed with family in Germany, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tacoma, Washington, D.C. and Southern California. While in Germany we were fortunate to live on the Neckar River in Heidelberg with a view south of the Old Bridge and the Castle (Schloss). My mother attended the Universitat. We moved to Bad Gotesberg, a city on the Rhine River. We spent a great deal of time traveling to nearby major cities such as Paris, London and Strasbourg squeezed into a hard top coupe Porsche—all five of us!
I lived in Hawaii with my parents while Dad was stationed at Camp Smith and I was attending the University of Hawaii Manoa. We resided in Schofield Barracks then Ft Shafter. Finally I moved into Frear Hall, a women’s residence of the YWCA in Manoa for a semester then an apartment across the street from the UH campus. My mother and grandfather gave me the curiosity and courage to be independent. Brother and sister and I were close. Dad was always supportive. Before graduating from UH I spent a semester in D.C. working for the New York Daily News as a copygirl, a wonderful experience in the core of Washington, D.C.—14th and F—near the Mayflower Hotel.
In about ‘72 I was back working for Blackfield Hawaii Corporation as a new recruit from Vi Dolman and Jake Urner’s residential and new condominium sales company. I had met with a Blackfield Hawaii commercial real estate agent in Honolulu who invited me to join the company that was merging with Alan Beall’s Hawaii Shopping Center Corporation. Alan’s offices were in the Yokohama Specie Bank Building on Merchant and Nu‘uanu Downtown. It was then that I fell head over heels in love with downtown Honolulu’s historic buildings particularly that special several block area of historic relics. I moved into a condo on Ward, with my German Shepherd, and started working on retail leases and specializing in restaurants. Soon the two companies merged and moved to Ward Ave. This really gave me a wider periphery to handle leasing and sales, including old industrial. It was beyond fun, but I yearned to be back downtown.
Alan’s company merged with Blackfield and he became President. One of his pride renovations was the Kahuku Sugar Mill into an entertainment center. When the company on development for its own account, I decided with encouragement from my mentors, to start a commercial real estate company, Jan Campbell Commercial Real Estate. Tom Sellers designed my historic Campbell soup-like card with Diamond Head and palm trees as medallion. My first office space was on the 2nd floor of the Dillingham Transportation Building. It had a wrought iron balcony and views of the Harbor and Aloha Tower. Almost immediately staff began to join me. I was a company! We used to go downstairs to the Territorial Tavern to listen to Keala and Kapono Beamer then pick up our keys at the bar cash register before going home.
I already knew Waikiki from college, having graduated from the University of Hawaii. As a pledge hazing, we had to shine shoes and polish toes of amused tourists in the International Market Place.
Camera in hand, and interested in furthering my interest in commercial real estate, I was taking trips to the mainland to see conversions of submarkets of Denver, Salt Lake and Seattle into lively retail and restaurant oriented communities from what were once old, abandoned parts of town.
HHF: You all come from such diverse backgrounds. When and how did your paths cross?
Fox: Shortly after arriving in Hawaii in 1969 I worked as an architectural consultant for the State Historic Preservation office. This provided an opportunity to visit many Historic Sites on Oahu and the outer islands and helped register many Historic Sites on the State and National Registry of Historic Places. I also met many people who were involved in a broad effort of Historic Preservation throughout Hawaii.
Atkins: Through Blackfield Hawaii I met some pretty interesting characters. At least two belonged to the Downtown Exchange Club. For at least a year, I was invited for lunch to this all-male professional organization that met in the Amfac (now Topa) Tower, then a Chinese boat next to the Ship terminal and Aloha Tower. Later we met in the basement of the Pacific Club. I became Director of Programs, then a secret first woman member of the Exchange Club. They got tired of paying for my lunch. It was there and through developer friends that Charles, Bob and I met. I was already hooked on historic buildings and preservation. I joined them in meetings with the Walker family on Nu‘uanu Ave, Una’s historic home, to talk about our mutual interests and play tennis. The National Trust got involved and encouraged us to start a preservation organization. It was amazing how quickly things happened with their help, organizational talents and the people from different historic communities and neighborhoods were willing to be included in being a part of the beginnings of an historic preservation organization in Honolulu. What better place to meet than the Royal Hawaiian and the Halekulani Hotels?!
HHF: Why were you personally drawn to be part of the HHF founding group?
Fox: There were many established preservation organizations on all the Islands, some going back 100 years.
This opportunity developed into the concept of creating Historic Hawaii Foundation to provide a statewide umbrella preservation organization to support the existing preservation organizations and provide direct support when required.
Atkins: Since I had just started my own company I could see the value of being involved in the start of this organization. I enjoyed everyone and was excited to be involved. This was something that affected me to my toes. The more the discussions developed, the more things were coming together. And I wanted to be a part of it, realizing something as strong and compelling as this had an important direction of its own. We assumed positions where we had strengths. I had traveled to Historic Denver, to Pioneer Square, Trolley Square. I attended the Portland National Trust Conference that year. My own offices were in the neighborhood of some of the most important historic buildings in the state. That first year my staff painted a large banner of Historic Hawaii Foundation which we carried in the Aloha Parade.
HHF: Provide our members with some historical background on key preservation/development issues in 1974 at the time HHF was founded.
- A major issue at the time was the establishment of the State of Hawaii and National Historic Preservation Register.
- Key Preservation issues at this time (included)The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Haleiwa bypass road, Queen Surf, Halekulani Hotel, Chinatown, Waikīkī development.
Black: We had 2 critical issues, The Royal Brewery and Chinatown. Bob Fox can better expound on historic districts, and rallying architectural support. I’m basically a people organizer.
Atkins: As we began meeting and organizing, we got pretty serious after the maiden voyage kick off at the Royal (Hawaiian Hotel) with National Trust officials, key developers of historic communities and Mayor Uhlman of Seattle in attendance. With their sponsorship and encouragement these preservationists recommended formation of Historic Hawaii Foundation. The goals established encompassed a range from informing the public as to the historic significance of buildings and sites, acquiring title or development rights to buildings of architectural and historic significance, finding new uses for buildings of historical value, developing educational programs for the business community to show the economic benefits of preservation of historic sites and buildings, and more. The governing members of the organization were: Charles M. Black, President; Mrs. Helen Allyn Cole, Jr., Vice President; Miss Jan Campbell (Atkins) Secretary; Robert Fox, Treasurer; Clare E Beck, and Aaron Levine, Thurston Twigg-Smith and Peter A. Donahoe, Esq. There were 31 members of Board of Directors including the other islands.
During that first year, 1974, we were assisted primarily by the National Trust, celebrating their 25th anniversary, who offered to be available to provide the tools for helping us in the supervision of the renovation of a small town determined to be of historic significance by the National Trust. As it turned out, the town selected in 1976 was Honoka‘a.
We were so fortunate to have both Carol Galbreath and John Frisbie, the two representatives from The National Trust Western office, as they knew exactly where the resources were to initiate some programs, like the renovation of the Kamehameha V building. We learned about other available funds from Housing and Urban Development (HUD), FHA funds for rehabilitation and the Amtrak Bill providing funds for railroad restoration.
The challenge of reaching out to professionals and community leaders, as well as approaching those who represented the community multi-ethnically—to promote Hawaii’s rich, diverse cultures was great.
We spent a great deal of time just prioritizing, taking advantage of the knowledge being shared, then outlining first projects. Of course paying the bills was a priority as well!
We had a concern about saving the Royal Brewery building while a Judiciary system for a law school was being studied for this site. We were interested in saving it, whether it be a part of the new law school or not.
Properties studied but not limited to in 1974
- Royal Brewery building on Queen, near downtown.
- Renovation of the Kamehameha V building on Merchant Street
- Learning that we could be involved in the selection and implementation of a town renovation.
Certainly a big issue was aligning ourselves with the City and County of Honolulu, determining what Historic Registry they had in place and how effective. This was not to happen for a while. In the meantime our membership grew quickly and we made ourselves known with preservation workshops throughout the state.
HHF: Was there a defining event or issue that served as a catalyst to the creation of HHF?
Fox: We developed an awareness in the community, by being involved, contacting individuals and groups and held meetings to include as many people as possible to discuss the potential of Historic Hawaii Foundation.
Black: In 1971 the Mission Houses sent me to the National Trust’s annual meeting in San Diego. And that’s when I met John Frisbee. John had just been tasked with starting the first National Trust headquarters on the West coast in San Francisco. This was the first major national meeting of the National Trust on the West coast. I introduced myself to John and gave him background on the situation here which led to his making an official trip to Hawai‘i and also a collaboration to raise national interest in our historic sites in Hawai‘i. As a result, two things happened: one, I was asked to become an advisor to the National Trust; and two, one of the first things I did the following year was take myself to Washington DC to the National Trust headquarters where they officially introduced me around to government reps in particular and also the National Park Service. I met personally with Senator Hiram Fong. The National Trust at that point was driving to get every state’s inventory of all their historic sites. The legislature at that point was not going to spend money to do this. We had already seen parts of Chinatown and the area above Vineyard flattened. We were concerned for Chinatown. We had examples where they had done that in Denver. I went to Senator Fong and noted our concerns. He had me write a letter about these concerns and he signed it and sent it to the governor asking for funding for this purpose. The governor agreed and funds were assigned.
At the same time we realized we needed to do something significant to get local and national attention for preservation issues. We put together a conference. We brought significant people who developed Historic Denver and the Mayor of Seattle out and did a tour of all the islands. Meetings were scheduled on each island with prime people (socially-, culturally- and politically-prominent). All of this activity culminated at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and we brought in outer island people. That’s when we officially decided to form an organization and called it Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. The first person to support us was Ken Watson from Denver who got us rolling by putting up a $100 toward membership. He later became our first Executive Director.
Atkins: As I recall the defining moment was from our spokesman and potential first Director, Ken Watson, who said, “let’s start this organization and I want to be our first member!” This was at the meeting organized by ourselves and the National Trust where the Mayor of Seattle was our keynote speaker. Of course we needed a treasurer to handle the money. That was Bob. And a secretary to take minutes and help organize meetings. That was me. Helen Cole was our Vice President and Charles was our President. I don’t believe there was any question who was going to assume which role. Everything fell into place. The support from the leaders at this meeting and our own potential members in attendance was certainly the catalyst to HHF’s beginning.
HHF: Once HHF was official, how did you rally up support for the cause (preservation) and galvanize people to join HHF as a member?
Fox: We had a lot of support from our membership. This was in the form of membership dues and contribution and donations. There was a ground swell of people that wanted to be part of Historic Hawaii
Foundation. We reached out to existing preservation organizations in Oahu and the outer islands.
Black: Helen Cole was the immediate past Regent of Daughters of Hawai‘i. She had had a similar experience to me in reaching out to members of DOH and was very well connected. Both she and I know lots of people who cared about these issues. People who had interest in taking care of Hawai‘i and had the money to support their interest. We made it desirable to be part of this movement. At the same time the 3rd element and was essential to our success was having something that was imminently threatening that rallies people.
We decided we should be an umbrella organization and supportive of other organizations and needed constituencies supporting preservation on other islands rather than jumping in with a particular organization.
Atkins: There were several in the core group who had fabulous tentacles for finding and convincing potential members: Charles Black, Nancy Bannick, Helen Cole, Sid Synder, Aaron Levine and many others. It was as if many had been waiting for this type of organization to be created.
HHF: Would you say Hawai‘i’s perception of preservation, what it means and why it’s important, has changed over the past 40 years and if so, how?
Fox: Because of Historic Hawaii Foundation people throughout the community are more aware of the importance of preserving our natural and built environment. This is critical for today and the future of Hawaii.
Atkins: Certainly there is a stronger respect for preservation from the residents, from tourists and from the City and County and State of Hawaii. They recognize the value, the satisfaction and the way of life that has exponentially increased the reputation of Hawaii as a place to live and visit. But because the City and County doesn’t do its duty of protecting and preserving, there has to be another organization that beats the drum.
HHF: What role did HHF play in this shift?
Atkins: Historic Hawaii Foundation has created an indelible niche as the statewide preservationist organization utilizing education and recognition of good planning, landscaping and archaeology in conjunction with historic properties. HHF is also a truant officer acting more aggressively albeit with détente to convince community and government to save buildings, neighborhoods, railroads, communities that are being overlooked and that have a special place in Hawaii. HHF is closer to the State Historic Preservation Office now and has helped them become a more credible, responsible organization that communicates more closely with issues and potential sites.
HHF: Based on your experiences in 1974 and beyond, what words of advice can you offer those working today to preserve and protect Hawai‘i’s historical treasures?
Fox: The most important effort is to stay involved with Historic Hawaii Foundation and being aware of the proposed developments throughout all islands. Respond to issues that have negative impacts on our Hawaii natural and built environment and insure it is not being destroyed by incentivizing negative development.
Black: Again I would repeat how important it is to have something that is imminently threatening that rallies people together with a vision of a common outcome. My advice, look at the situation from all sides and find the right focus of your campaign to rally the troops. Using the Natatorium as an example, one thing I would say to reporters today is think about the possible headlines that will hit the national newspapers if the Natatorium is demolished, “Hawai‘i government destroys a national and international monument that memorializes the contribution of people from around the world living in Hawai‘i who were killed in the war.” Imagine the international outrage it would cause. These key issues are an important part of what does it take to get the membership up. At this time we need a critical issue and need to fight jumping in with both feet, yelling and screaming and sounding the alarm to all communities affected both locally and internationally in the case of the Natatorium.
Atkins: It is wonderful that so many are interested in performing this service to maintain the beauty of Hawaii. I especially encourage more Hawaiians to participate. Their families have so much history to contribute. The music should be more a part of the history. Preservation starts in your own neighborhood. Anyone can have an idea to contribute. Just come and be a part of the meetings, the process. You will be swept up!