The Story of the Coral Blocks at the New Performance Garden

By Thomas A. Woods, Ph.D., Executive Director, Mission Houses Museum, April 18, 2011

Mission Houses Museum dedicated Kahua Ho`okipa, a performance garden, on April 15, 2011. The event featured an oli by Mihana Souza and a blessing by Kahu Curt Kekuna, Senior Pastor of Kawaiaha`o Church. Kualoa provided music and Kalehuapuakea, with Keu Ostrem, Kumu hula, performed hula. The Sounds of Aloha Barbershop Chorus served up harmony, while participants enjoyed pupu from Mission Houses Café and Tea Parlor.
Intended to initiate collaboration and engage the community, the project depended on community volunteers, with all labor and equipment provided by volunteers. The design was created by Rick Quinn of Helber, Hastert, and Fee Planners. Hawthorne CAT donated heavy equipment for three weekends to move coral blocks and earth, and United Truck Rental donated the use of a truck. Teddi Anderson, The Limtiaco Company President, assisted with public relations and connected the Mission Houses Museum with Chris Giannaris of Hawthorne CAT. The Rotary Club of Metropolitan Honolulu provided the base of volunteer labor. That group was supported by the Rotary Club of East Honolulu. Earl Kawa`a and employees of Kamehameha Schools, as well as members of Kawaiaha`o Church provided important assistance. Darcy Builders, Inc. donated the use of a jumping jack earth packer and other equipment. Individuals like Adrian Klasovsky, arborist, donated their skills. Charles Black and members of his family—Jeff and his daughters Cassandra and Keeley Bontag—helped operate the heavy equipment and provide construction advice and labor. Hui Ku Maoli Ola donated Native Hawaiian Plants. A range of donors provided financial donations to pay for the soil, plants, and sod necessary to make the project happen. Finally, Paepae o He`eia accepted the remaining coral blocks for use in the walls of He`eia Fishpond.

The blocks used in creating the Kahua Ho`okipa came from the old court house that was built in 1851 and demolished in 1968.

The first official court cases in Hawai`i were held at the stone house of Governor Kekuanao`a within the walls of the old Honolulu Fort. When the fort went into decline, Governor Kekuanao`a ceased to use the stone house, and court was moved to temporary locations beginning in 1846.(1) After much disagreement and changes of plans, the government chose a location close to the fort on the Diamond Head side, fronting Queen Street, with Fort Street to the Ewa side.

The coral was cut by prisoners in the summer and fall of 1851, and coral block work was completed by February 1852 (2). By 1857, the court house served as an archive, containing records for the collector of customs and registrar of conveyances. The court house was an elegant space, with a life-size portrait of Kamehameha V hanging on the wall of the lobby and a portrait of Kamehameha I on the opposite wall. The courtyard was equally handsome, with a fine ornate iron fence imported from England surrounding the grounds and a spring-fed fountain at the corner of Queen and Fort streets by 1870 (3).

The court house quickly became the center of Honolulu political and social life. The hub of judicial and legislative activities in Hawai`i, the building was also completed in time for the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society to hold its second ever annual meeting there on June 1, 1852. This was the first non-governmental use of the building.

The court house also hosted many other events important in the history of Honolulu and Hawai`i.

• Foreign citizens held church services in the court house for several years, beginning in 1852.
• The Land Commission offices were located on the first floor in December 1852 at the time the Commission was awarding claims under the Mahele.
• The annual meeting of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society continued holding annual meetings there, and, in 1854, held its annual meeting and agricultural fair on the grounds.
• On July 18, and July 20, 1853, citizens protested at the court house against the government’s handling of the small pox epidemic.
• On September 7, 1853, a meeting was held to form a mechanics association to assist working men.
• On April 29, 1854, the school commission was elected at the court house.
• Concerts were held there, also. For instance, on May 4, 1854, Mrs. Fiddes presented a concert.
• On July 4, 1854, and in future years, American residents gathered to celebrate Independence Day with a ball and fireworks.
• On November 16, 1854, the ladies of Honolulu put on a fair to benefit the Masons and Odd Fellows.
• On June 5, 1856, Prince Lot Kamehameha held a ball there.
• The Chinese merchants of Honolulu and Lahaina threw a ball to honor the king and queen. It was reputed to be one of the fanciest affairs to date.
• Organizers formed the Queen’s Hospital at the court house on May 25, 1859.
King Lunalilo was elected at the court house on January 8, 1873, and King Kalakaua was also elected there on February 12, 1874.
• The court house was damaged by riots when Queen Emma’s supporters protested the election of King Kalakaua.
• Legislative sessions were held at the court house until after the election of King Kalakaua and the completion of Ali`iolani Hale(4).

After Ali`iolani Hale was completed in 1874, court house and legislative functions moved to the new building (5), and the court house was eventually sold to H. Hackfeld. The building contained the company’s main offices from 1874 until 1902, when the new American Factors Building was built in downtown Honolulu. Between 1902 and 1968, the building went through a variety of uses, including offices, a grocery, and feed warehouse (6).
The old Honolulu Fort had been built in 1816 of adobe and then rebuilt of coral block in 1831.

The Fort stood across from the court house for twenty-six years. Both buildings occupied a historically important point of land called Pakaka (The Point) that consisted of shallow coral (7). When the Fort was dismantled in 1857, the coral blocks that had composed its walls filled in the shallow reef in that area, creating 16 additional acres of land and 2,000 additional feet of waterfront (8). This area was later called the “Esplanade,” on old maps and was also known as “`Aina-hou.” It includes the parking lot makai of the Topa Towers, which is officially known as Irwin Park today, and Aloha Tower area and pier (9).

The court house lived on for a century longer than the old fort, but when new high rises began springing up throughout downtown, the proud old court house was demolished in December 1968 (10).

Mission Houses Museum was planning major restoration and interpretive program planning as part of the organization’s sesquicentennial in 1968. Thurston Twigg-Smith was president of the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Board of Trustees. Twigg-Smith was also appointed by the governor to be a representative on the Historical Park Commission. It was this relationship that helped bring the coral blocks to Mission Houses Museum. He received a letter from Miss Nancy Bannick, Chairman of the Historic Buildings Task Force, asking for the Society’s support in trying to save the court house, which Amfac planned to remove at the end of the year. She asked if HMCS could act as “a legal entity” to accept a donation of the building and $25,000 from Amfac to move and restore it at an alternative site. The Board approved the request (11). In the end, HMCS ended up accepting some of the coral blocks that were demolished from the court house (12). They remained in a pile in the backyard from 1968 until 2011, when the Kahua Ho`okipa was built.


[1] Richard A. Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” Hawaii Historical Review 1:5 (October 1863) 77, 79-80.

 [2]Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 79-80.

[3] Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 82.

[4] Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 83-4.

[5] Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 84.

[6] Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 85.

[7] Greer, “Along the Old Honolulu Waterfront,” The Hawaiian Journal of History 32 (1998) 56.

[8] Greer, “A Sketch of Ke-Kua-Nohu, 1845-1850, with Notes of Other Times Before and After,” The Hawaiian Journal of History 2 (1968) 33.

[9] Greer, “The Old Court House on Queen Street,” 81; Samuel M. Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai`i, (Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools, 1961) 419.

[10] Gorham Gilman, edited by Jean S. Sharpless and Richard A. Greer, “1848—Honolulu As It Is—Notes for Amplification,” Hawaiian Journal of History 4 (1970) 122.

[11] “Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Directors of the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society,” March 7, 1968, HMCS Administrative Office.

[12] No actual letters or minutes have been found that document the arrival of the blocks, but Charles Black was a member of the Board of Directors, and he remembers the arrival of the blocks in early 1969. They are also noted on a concept drawing completed for Mission Houses Museum restoration by Frost and Frost, Architects, 1969, Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library and Archives.

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Housekeeping at Mission Houses

This has been a month for housekeeping at Mission Houses Museum.  While we are fortunate to have a fantastic housekeeper in Quada and I work hard to ensure the collection is properly cared for, one individual cannot keep up with the multitude of tasks involved in ensuring the museum and its collection are preserved and protected.  Add the staff layoffs undergone over the past 2 1/2 years and you see a museum presented with some opportunities to think outside of the box.   My first solution has been to increase internships working in the museum’s collections. Next I have turned the annual “spring cleaning” into a public workshop and third, I have focused my attention on ensuring the foundational areas of collection care are in place.  Finally, I have looked at this as an opportunity to empower interns and volunteers in the work of the museum – hopefully creating a wider understanding of the needs that exist and help in doing them.

Increasing interns – I currently enjoy the assistance of 6 interns and 5 volunteers who work with me in collections on Tuesday night (ceramic inventory) and Thursday morning (textile inventory) and afternoons (backlog issues).  The students learn basic handling techniques, storage needs for specific object types, and general museum care theory.  Their main focus is the full inventory we are currently undergoing.  When completed each object will have been viewed, photographed, input into the museum’s Past Perfect database and if needed re-housed.  I also ask the interns to assist with special projects and with general maintenance such as checking hygrothermographs, doing spot checks of exhibition spaces and the monthly walk though of the historic structures.  By empowering these students to actually do the work under my supervision; I hope they have a better appreciation and understanding of the museum’s needs.  I also hope that the knowledge they gain has a deeper level than just watching or hearing about me doing these tasks on my own.

Spring House Cleaning Workshop – It has been very rewarding to see this idea from a program planning session last fall come to fruition this spring.  Understanding that the 1821 Mission House needed an annual deep cleaning and also realizing that staff time was just not there to realize this, we developed a workshop for the public.  The workshop covered basic handling techniques and then went over object needs by type.  These needs included temperature and humidity levels, interaction issues with cleaning methods, how and if to clean an item.  After this very basic introduction, participants tried out these newly learned techniques by cleaning the objects in the 1821 Mission House.  At the end of the day, they each received a certificate and a manual with bibliography and articles on what we had just done.  So far, response has been very favorable.  I, as the curator am particularly pleased with having accomplished some necessary tasks to ensure the on-going care of these.  It was also personally rewarding to empower individuals with information that we employ in the museum on a daily basis.  When one participant expressed concern that I would allow her to handle a historic ceramic platter – my response that she was now trained and understood the care needed, that the environment where she was handling it had been carefully prepared and that I would not only be with her but had every confidence in allowing her to appropriately clean this piece surprised her – coming as it was from a curator.  In a world that cries out for engaging their audience – I don’t think it can get better than this!

Foundational Issues – If you spend time at Mission Houses with me, it doesn’t take long before a mention of “the Inventory” comes up.  I have with the help of numerous volunteers and interns been working on a general inventory of the collection since 2008.  I have been asked when this inventory will be completed and even why I feel we should emphasize this at the museum. 

To be truthful, working with interns and volunteers makes answering the first part of the previous statement difficult.  The museum has been using 3000 as the magic number of objects in its collection for many years.  When we inventoried the Print Shop in the summer of 2009, we found 75000 pieces of type alone.  So obviously, there is a discrepancy. Now many items are cataloged as a set; for example 1 tea set may contain 28 actual pieces.  However, even looking at this number by sets, it still seems too low to me.  So we are working our way through the collection in order to have an accurate accounting of the museum’s holdings.  I have for logistics sake divided the collection up into type.  We are currently on textiles and ceramics.  I would say we are a third of the way to completion at this point. 

The answer is simple to the second part of the original statement – we are doing a general inventory so that we can be accountable for the items we hold in our collection.  To be accountable and able to best care for our collection we need to know what items we own, which we don’t and need to return, and what (heaven forbid) is missing.  If we have this information in an organized form – we can find objects when we want to, determine what objects need conservation care and if we really want 100 of some item or if we should decision some of these duplicate objects to make room for those things that we do need to tell and preserve the museum’s story.  It all comes back to knowing what we have and ensuring the appropriate files are in place.

Tenting: We have been working toward tenting the Chamberlain House for months.  The process is currently underway and the museum is utilizing the services of Kama`aina Termite and Pest Control here in Honolulu.  After discovering termite droppings in the second floor window sills of the historic Chamberlain House last summer, we attempted to spot treat them.  It soon became apparent that this had not worked as effectively as we hoped and that we needed to tent the entire house.  So after visiting the museum’s Housekeeping Manual and learning that the Chamberlain House has been tented in the past and that this was a treatment the manual suggested undergoing every 3 to 5 years; we asked three companies to bid on the project.  We chose Kama`aina Termite and Pest Control because of the care they took to respect the second oldest building in Hawai`i.  The reviews past customers had given them were very positive.  We also found them very easy to work with and interested in doing the job right.  I write this sitting outside the visitor center lanai next to the tented house on Sunday morning, so we will see how the story ends when the tent comes down Monday morning.

So, this month of housekeeping at Mission Houses Museum has ended favorably.  With more people empowered to care for and learn from the fascinating objects surrounding them at Mission Houses Museum.

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Inaugural post for new Mission Houses Museum Blog!

Aloha and E Komo Mai!

This is the first entry of the Mission Houses Museum’s blog – The Curator’s Place or “Ko Kahu Mea Ho’omäÿikeÿike Wahi”!  The blog will be filled with interesting information about the work, site and research being done in the curator’s office, and profiling special items in the museum’s collections.  It will also host a variety of interesting discussions on a number of topics related to 19th century “mea” or “stuff” in Hawai`i and the connections we can make to our world today.

Let’s start with the blog’s title – Curator’s Place. Originally, I wanted to call it Curator’s Mea but our director, Tom Woods rightly reminded me of the variety of ways the Hawaiian language uses mea:

  • mea e ae –miscellaneous or other things
  • mea e aku—other things
  • mea ulu—vegetables
  • mea kanu—crops
  • mea I bipi—those cattle
  • na mea—possessions, property holdings
  • na mea koho—qualified voters
  • na mea ulu—vegetables
  • na mea ulu eka—acres in vegetables

To insure we were using the word correctly, we contacted our friend at Kamehameha schools, Nanea Armstrong-Wassel who was very helpful.  She confirmed that there is no word for curator in Hawaiian and suggested our title.  In the English language, the word curator is defined as a person charged with the procurement, care and research of a collection, usually in a museum. The thesaurus uses the words caretaker, custodian, janitor and the like.  I always think of a curator as being the arm for the museum’s mission that “preserves and protects” the objects entrusted to it. It is the curator who works to insure that the stories represented by these artifacts are kept and retold for today and future generations. This makes a lot of sense especially when you use the title caretaker which does have a translation here in Hawai`i.  In the online dictionary, Na Puke Wehewehe `Olelo Hawai`i ( the word caretaker translates as “kahu…”  It was Nanea who first suggested the title for our blog – “Ko Kahu Mea Ho’omäÿikeÿike Wahi” which translates into Curator’s Place.

As I think about this entry, I am struck by the appropriateness of the conversation behind naming it. This is after all the type of discussions that have happened numerous times on the museum’s site over the years as newcomers work learning to use the Hawaiian written alphabet and its spoken language properly.

Mahalo nui loa!

Elizabeth Nosek, Senior Curator at Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, HI

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