A Century of Kaimukī
Fort Ruger. ©Hawaii State Archives
East Oahu neighborhood offers rich history and tales of menehune.
On a hill overlooking Honolulu, the neighborhood of Kaimukī is best known for an eclectic mix of restaurants, cafes and bakeshops. Yet, this community wasn’t always the chic urban hotspot it is today. In the Hawaiian language, Ka-imu-ki translates to “the ti oven,” a reference to folklore legend about the menehune, a mischievous race of dwarf-like pixies, who cooked the roots of the ti plant in this area. In precontact times, Kaimukī was dusty and dry and not heavily populated. But it was still an important place; there were up to four heiau (ancient Hawaiian temples) located here. During the Battle of Nu‘uanu, one of the last great battles for the unification of the Hawaiian Islands in 1795, King Kamehameha I stationed his troops on Waikīkī Beach and had lookouts at Pu‘u o Kaimukī (Kaimukī Hill) to watch for enemies arriving by sea.
When Honolulu became a major port city years later, this spot became known as “Telegraph Hill” when a semaphore machine with large moving arms was reportedly attached atop a sixty-foot pole and used flags for signaling in 1857. This vantage point allowed for a broad view of the Pacific Ocean to spot approaching ships — and a clear line-of-sight to a building on Merchant Street which could receive a message and relay it across downtown Honolulu.
“I remember the demolition of the bunkers on top of Menehune Hill (Pu‘u o Kaimukī) when the city said the rebars were rusted out and dangerous,” recalls longtime Kaimukī Gerry DeBenedetti. “Then when they went to knock them down, they couldnʻt. They beat, whacked and pounded on the bunker rebars, and it took forever to remove the cement and the rubble.”
Through the years, the owners of Kaimukī became a who’s who of Hawaiʻi rulers and business leaders: the area first transferred from King Kamehameha III to William Lunalilo in the 1850s; then sold at auction in 1884 for $2,325 to Dr. Georges Phillipe Trousseau, a physician in the Royal Court of King Kalākaua, who used the lands as an ostrich farm and for grazing cattle. Trousseau would later gift Kaimukī to sugarcane developer Paul Isenberg, who then sold the 520 acres of land to business partners Theodore Lansing and Albert van Clief Gear in 1898 for $20,000. Their goal was to develop the rocky, red-dirt hillside into high-class residential suburbs—if they could build it.
Lansing and Gear contracted a giant water reservoir built atop Kaimukī Hill, water main pipes along the streets, and the lands surveyed and subdivided into 600-by-500-square-foot lots, selling for between $400 and $600. Prefabricated homes could be ordered from the mainland for as little as $700. To attract potential buyers, the business partners set up a country fair, shooting gallery and a zoo where they showed off a variety of animals, including two brown bears and a “Hawaiian Zebra”—a donkey imported from the Island of Hawaiʻi painted in black zebra stripes. (Their hoax was revealed one afternoon when the rains came and washed away the paint.) Lansing and Gear later offered $50 to the family of every baby born in the neighborhood and promised to run roads to every house in Kaimukī.
Hawaiian newspaper “The Independent” announced Kaimukī as “A New Suburb” in 1898: “The gentle slope of the land prevents any resident from shutting off the scenery from his neighbor and the cool fresh breeze will always be felt and enjoyed in every nook and corner of the tract … The roads mentioned are in excellent condition and will be pronounced so by riders, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Sales were slow until 1903 when the Honolulu electric streetcar, which had been introduced in November 1900, expanded its route from downtown and began service to Koko Head Avenue and Kapahulu. The Academy of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (today known as Sacred Hearts Academy) opened as a boarding school in 1909. Next door, Saint Patrick Catholic Church opened first as a convent chapel in 1917, then as a full Romanesque cruciform structure in 1929. Kaimukī Hill became a lookout point once again when the University of Hawai‘i placed an observatory here, the perfect place to catch Haley’s Comet when it appeared in 1910. At the base of the hill, a Spanish mission-style fire station was built in 1924.
Businesses began popping up along the main thoroughfare of Waialae Avenue, such as Kaimukī Dry Goods in 1926 and Harry’s Music Store in 1946. At the center of this new neighborhood was the 850-seat Queen Theater, which distributed statuette busts of Queen Liliuokalani to every lady in attendance when it opened on June 29, 1936.
Kaimukī’s growth slowed in the late 1950s and 60s. The development of Ala Moana Shopping Center and Waialae Shopping Center (Kahala Mall today) hurt neighborhood businesses, as did the construction of the H-1 Freeway that stretched to Kaimukī by the mid-1960s, diverting commuters away from Waialae Avenue. New housing codes and regulations saw many of the classic historic homes swapped with generic-looking replacements. Even the regal Queen Theater fell into decline, with its blockbuster film premieres, Broadway revivals, and vaudeville shows replaced by adult movies in the 1970s.
Today, the Queen sits empty but the neighborhood has undergone a revitalization. Tourists looking to enjoy O‘ahu beyond Waikīkī along with a new generation of locals who walk, bicycle, go to farmer’s markets and prefer small businesses over shopping malls have made Kaimukī busier than ever. Coffee shops, boutique stores, craft pubs, and fine dining restaurants have given this neighborhood new life. Who knows what shape Kaimukī will take in the next hundred years?