Each year, people travel to Hawaii in droves to bask in the islands’ sunshine and enjoy the famous beaches of Oahu. Today, Waikiki Beach is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with high-rises, but at the turn of the 20th century, there was just a solitary hotel on the entire stretch of oceanfront: the Moana, whose name means “broad expanse of ocean.”
When construction began on the Moana Hotel in late 1899, Waikiki was a backwater, surrounded by taro fields and duck ponds. But the beautiful beach, a short tram ride from downtown Honolulu, beckoned to local landowner Walter Chamberlain Peacock. He thought it the perfect spot for a hotel, and commissioned architect Oliver Traphagen to build one.
The Beaux Arts-style building opened in March 1901, with 75 modern guest rooms and a distinctive porte-cochere entrance, and was an immediate success. The local newspaper reported, “Moana Hotel opened last evening with glitter and good cheer.” Its arrival heralded the beginning of Hawaii’s tourist industry, and the Moana soon came to be known as the First Lady of Waikiki.
The hotel was so popular that within two decades of opening, it got an extensive addition. In 1918, two massive Italian Renaissance-style wings were built flanking the main building, designed with care to repeat its distinctive arches. The additions doubled the hotel’s size, gave it its uncommon H shape, and created another of its famous features—Banyan Court, an open-air patio with lanais along three sides, centered around a sprawling banyan tree. For 40 years—from 1935 to 1975—the radio show Hawaii Calls, showcasing island music, was broadcast live from this spot.
Over the years, the Moana hosted more than its share of famous visitors, including a young Duke of Windsor (before he became king and abdicated his throne), Amelia Earhart, and even Frank Sinatra. It also has seen its share of history. The captain and crew of the U.S.S. Arizona hosted a dance there on September 22, 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor. After that attack, Moana’s beach was outfitted with barbed wire for the remainder of the war to discourage invaders.
As the years passed, the hotel would change ownership nearly a dozen times, and with each new owner lose a little more of its luster. The 1930s were a particularly brutal decade; the columns of the porte-cochere and those lining the lobby were stripped down to their supports and covered in Masonite, a type of fiberboard panel, in the name of then-popular Streamline. (At the time, Beaux Arts was considered old-fashioned.)
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the Moana was barely recognizable as the grand dame she’d once been. When architect Virginia D. Murison was called in to select new carpet for the lobby, the seeds of restoration began to take root. Murison pointed out several areas for improvement, many involving fire-safety issues, and a slew of architectural details that had been lost. Soon she had a laundry list of suggested restorative repairs, and the encouragement of the new building manager, who knew the hotel’s history. But the owner was worried about costs, which were quickly adding up into the millions. “Being a longtime member of the National Trust, I started exploring tax credits,” Murison says. The 25-percent credit available for such a project at the time became a selling point with the owner, helping set the restoration into motion.
Murison was fortunate to find the 1930s demolition plan for the porte-cochere. “It outlined how they stripped off the column capitals, entablature, cladding, and went down to the raw posts in the middle,” she says. It became a blueprint for the repairs, as did a paint ghost discovered where the original columns had met the wall. “Everything fell into place,” explains Murison. “We went to an old Sir Banister Fletcher [an architectural reference book] and found plates showing the exact proportions of the columns.”
Another lucky find—an impression in a wood floor’s wax coating, hiding beneath four layers of linoleum and carpet in the lobby—revealed the diameter of the room’s original columns. When rebuilding them, Murison was able to hide new systems—sewer, electrical, and fire safety—inside, woven into the historic fabric.
In time, more original details revealed themselves to Murison: fragments of applied plaster in the basement crawl space, individual railing posts beneath Masonite, impressions of fleur-de-lis identified in paint buildup. Reproduction parts were carefully crafted—all of the millwork was hand-carved in the Phillippines. “I like to say there was more handwork involved in the restoration than was probably involved in the original,” says Murison, explaining that much of the circa-1900 millwork would have been ordered from era catalogs.
The restoration was honored with the President’s Award for Historic Preservation in 1992. Accolades notwithstanding, one of Murison’s favorite aspects of the project was the local community’s response. “Although zoning variances were required to accommodate our work, everybody came out to support us at the hearings, because everybody had memories of the Moana.” Those memories came gushing forth when the hotel requested souvenirs of the past to create a “historic room” on the second floor, one now filled with family photos, old room keys, and the woolen bathing suits once rented by the hotel.
Today, the Moana may be dwarfed by the towering high-rises all around, but they don’t overwhelm her. Visitors can enjoy afternoon tea on the veranda served by waitresses wearing long dresses and white gloves in a nod to decades past. They can read a book amid the grand Ionic columns lining the lobby, lulled by warm ocean breezes. And they can dine and dance alfresco on the patio, embraced in dappled sun- or moonlight courtesy of the now-enormous banyan tree. The hotel’s majestic presence is no less unique than when she was the first on the beach.