For years, my vote for the ugliest building in Honolulu went to the old Queen Emma Tower, a seemingly abandoned office building near the corner of Queen Emma Street and South Kukui Street. Built in 1963, the building is a legacy from the lamentable building boom just after statehood and many of its most unattractive features stemmed from the dubious aesthetics of that era. The building’s trademark – if that’s the word – was always its facade, an unsightly mishmash of bricks of different sizes, most of them jutting randomly from the surface like pimples. That odd textural effect was echoed in the strange, erratic brass grating that covered two sides of the building. To my eye, the Queen Emma Tower has always been hideous.
And yet, call it nostalgia, but I love the old building. So, when those ghastly brass gratings were recently removed – part of a long-planned conversion to condominiums – I confess I felt such an unexpected twinge of loss. I feel compelled to reflect a little about ugly buildings and their meaning. Ugly, of course, has its own charms. In that sense, I guess you could say I love the old building like one loves an ugly dog. In fact, there are a lot of ugly buildings around Oahu that I find myself drawn to simply because they’re homely and odd. Sometimes I drive around Kakaako just to look at the old Quonset Huts that still litter the backstreets. Surely, there’s nothing beautiful about these corrugated steel buildings, but I’m charmed by them just the same. Similarly, up and down Kamehameha Highway in Windward Oahu, there are queer buildings that I remark on every time I pass: A-frames and round houses that are more whimsey than architecture, but that’s what I like about them.
Part of what draws me to the Queen Emma Tower, too, is its idiosyncrasy. There simply aren’t any other buildings quite like it in Hawaii. But it’s also true that even the most unattractive features of the building are more charming than the corresponding features of more modern buildings. Even the misguided brickwork facade is superior to the nearly featureless surfaces of most buildings constructed after the 1950s. From Gothic cathedrals to Louis Sullivan, that nod to texture is part of what gives old architecture its appealing human scale. (I’ve often fantasized scaling, rock-climber style, the nubbly walls of the Queen Emma Tower.) However ugly the building was in 1963, when it was built, image how much uglier it would would have been without the texture from that facade. I guess that’s also part of what made the loss of the brass grating so shocking.
But my nostalgia also has a personal side. When I was a kid, my father had an office in Kailua, in the old commercial building at 43 Oneawa. Like the Queen Emma Tower, this building was built in 1963 and had a brass grating over the windows. I spent many hours of my youth gazing through that grating to the street below. The building is still there, but the grating was removed long ago. Maybe it’s just as well – though without it’s brass facade, the building’s drab architecture is unmistakable. But those gratings, so common on buildings of that era, served a purpose besides decoration. Most of these buildings were constructed before central air conditioning. They depended on natural ventilation, and typically had lots of opening windows and eaves to keep out the rain. The gratings helped, not only with the rain, but in shading the interiors from the heat of the sun. You can still see a lot of these gratings downtown, often added to older buildings in the 1960s to give them a more “modern” flair. For people like me, with old fashioned tastes, these ad hoc additions to Hawaii’s eclectic architectural styles were a kind of sacrilege. But on the banal buildings from the 1960s, they were probably a much-needed soupcon of decoration.
It’s surprising how much of old downtown and Chinatown is comprised of these converted buildings. A walk along Fort Street Mall reveals the strange American architectural impulse to keep up with the times. Over and over, you find proud old buildings farded up and false-fronted in a hasty attempt to seem “modern”. And yet, it never works. That’s because modern taste is much too evanescent to be captured by the prefab concrete or sheet-metal contrivances of property managers or would-be real estate tycoons. Architectural fashions today simply don’t last as long as the Victorian, Eclectic or Romanesque aesthetics. So the rush to make old buildings seem contemporary is usually dated almost before it starts.
Maybe that’s what bothers me most as I drive past the Queen Emma Tower these days. Sure, the old building is ugly. But that doesn’t mean they can’t ruin her.