Everything Else HawaiiWritten by Dennis Hollier On 15 June 2012
Another View of Honolulu’s Chinatown

Chinatown has a heart of stone. Literally.

Pay attention as you zigzag your way through the old neighborhood, and you’ll begin to notice that, beneath a thin skin of fancy brickwork and other frillery – the hallmark Chinatown’s early 20th Century architecture – the innards of many of the old buildings are really constructed with rough-hewn lava stone and a mortar of cheap concrete. These lava stone walls aren’t to be confused with the gorgeous cut-stone facades that adorn buildings like the one that now houses HPU on Fort Street and Beretania. Behind those Romanesque niceties, though, there’s often a humbler, more slapdash masonry holding the whole thing up. And for some reason, every time I catch a glimpse of these old stones, I’m filled with a kind of smug satisfaction – like I’ve been let in on one of the world’s pretty little secrets. Here’s a quick tour of a few of my favorites:

Often, there’s a real dichotomy between the money a builder lavished on the front of a building, and the rustic work in the back:

Back of the building on the corner of Pauahi and Nuuanu.

The back of the old Risque Theater at 32 N. Hotel Street


Facade of the Barrio building at 1108 Maunakea

Rear of 1108 Maunakea

Rear of 79 N. Beretania Street.

Facade of 79 N. Beretania

Occasionally, though, it’s possible to see how the rustic stone walls and the fancy decorative elements work together to make a building.

Tan Sing Building at 1128 Smith Street

169 N. King Street

But my favorite example of the old stone bones of Chinatown can be found in the parking lot on Nimitz Avenue, between Maunakea and Kekaulike. Here, you’ll find an old, abandoned warehouse set kitty-corner into the middle of the block. It’s a massive affair, that seems to pre-date the pretty little buildings that surround it (some of which show their own lava stone heritage,) and yet no one in the neighborhood will admit to knowing anything about the edifice. The inside is propped up with I-bars and other schemes to keep the whole thing from crashing to the ground. But the three-story behemoth seems to be constructed almost entirely of unadorned, hand-cut lava stone – a tribute to the cheap, but lovely underpinnings of much of the rest of Chinatown.

The great stone warehouse.

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