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The Maui Grand Hotel, the Grandness of Wailuku
July 26, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Facebook is about current, “now” happenings, sometimes interesting for an instant (in the 1960s artist Andy Warhol said that in the future all people will be famous for 15 minutes – but in the FB Age, everything and everybody is “famous” for about a minute, then we move on, without any contemplation, reflection, meditation on meaning or insights).
Sometimes Facebook is a forum for the past, especially if the FB “Friends” lived through the same period, in the same place.
Sometimes FB “Friends” were living – as children or youth – in the same neighborhood, but never interacted. Then suddenly, on Facebook a photo of a bye-gone place evokes nostalgia. The Japanese word for nostalgia is natsukashii and it has deep meanings of images, experiences, scenes, sounds -- a sense of loss.
When a FB Friend posted a sepia photograph of the Wailuku Grand Hotel, for many FB Friends, it was the first time they had ever seen the building. For others they (as children) had dinner or stayed there.
Note: See the photos on this blog site – the large wooden structure stood on the spot where Uptown Service Station is now located. The site is next to the old Kress Store, also gone. From Main Street, cars drove into the hotel’s semi-circle driveway and it was the center of social life and fine dining into the 1960s.
Historically speaking, in the late 19th century Lahaina’s importance as a former Kingdom capital had waned, then with the Overthrow and Annexation, the Territorial political leaders re-partitioned the islands into “counties”. In 1905 – around the time my grandparents arrived on Maui – Wailuku was chosen as the new Maui County capital. During the chaotic post-Kingdom period, Molokai and Lanai islands were on equal footing with Maui, then suddenly, Wailuku was the center of the Maui County world, with T.H. courts, tax collectors, building permit officials, police, fire departments -- a lot more higher-paying jobs. Perhaps Molokai and Lanai never fully recovered from this sudden fall into a sub-set of Maui County – even today some argue that Molokai has more linkages with Oahu and grudgingly accept Wailuku’s power.
If one was a businessman on Maui in the early 20th century, there were many signs that Maui was undergoing a profound transformation into a agri-commercial hub (and Wailuku was the center of business). In the mid-19th century Wailuku Sugar Company and other plantations were engineering miles and miles of canals, a huge network to irrigate thirsty sugarcane, originating in the Iao Valley to the “isthmus” of flat central Maui – “Sugar was indeed King”, but without water, the central valley was a dusty plain. Hence, the new Territorial Wailuku government took advantage of the new water connections – to leverage the water pipe lines for residential growth. With water connections, you could build entire plantation “towns” and fill it with workers in quickly-buillt housing.
Along with my grandparents came thousands of plantation workers to Maui – from Japan, southern China, Philippines, Portugal. On Maui all commercial development was focused on Wailuku (Kahului was barely worth a look back then: a warehousing depot next to the port, not a place to live or shop).
My grandparents’ Wailuku Hongwanji Temple was established already in 1899, and soon there would be a Japanese language school. Early on there was an energetic Young Men’s Buddhist Association flourishing with entrepreneurs dreaming about new shops, banks, factories, and diversified crops – with the same vigor as Southern Californians would show in the 1970s and ‘80s to transform Pa’ia and Lahaina.
By the 1920s Wailuku had many retail shops, a splendid bowling alley, poi and rice milling factories, movie theaters (in 1927 the Iao Theater was the first state-of-the-art movie theater built in the entire Hawaiian islands!) -- all symbols of a civilized, vibrant society. The Maui elite who governed Maui County and ran its plantations would live in large homes along High Street, and behind them were many bungalows for County staff and entrepreneurs.
Just after the Overthrow in 1894, in anticipation of great business potential, the all-wooden Wailuku Hotel was built. Then a brand-new hotel was built – the “Grand Hotel” in 1916, in the middle of World War I – an elegant two-story hotel design by Honolulu architect J. Holmberg, probably a friend of C.W. Dickey, a Haiku native and M.I.T. graduate (and perhaps the greatest architect in Hawaiian history).
Opening 11 years before the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, the Maui Grand Hotel had a spacious lobby, a fine dining room, and second-floor lanai, overlooking the porte-cochere, just inside Main Street. A hotel firm that owned the premiere Pioneer Inn in Lahaina acquired the Grand Hotel in 1920. Nine years later a businessman named E. J. Walsh bought it in the year of the Great Depression. He was fired up about the Maui economy, adding 25 more rooms for a stucco-roof wing – totaling 61 rooms, the largest hotel in all of Maui County until well in the post-World War II period. Later the majestic hotel was owned by K. Takitani Enterprises, a post-War conglomerate that also had Star Ice and Soda, Wailuku Motors, and dominated movie theaters throughout Maui.
One FB friend remembers the patriarchal business leader Mr. Takitani dressed in a light colored suit and wearing a Panama Hat standing along the Maui Grand Hotel wrap-around lanai. Many Maui businessmen would make deals smoking cigars before or after dinner on the lanai.
The Maui Grand Hotel gift shop also comes alive in the book Georgia O'Keeffe's Hawai'i by Patricia Jennings (See my Maui News blog book review at the top). As the daughter of a Hana sugar plantation manager, Jennings meets artist Georgie O’Keefe (the artiist, already famous, would stay and be enthralled by this hotel, even though she was familiar with New York’s Fifth Avenue five-star accomodations) for several transformational days on Maui. In the book Jennings' most cherished and extravagant childhood purchases were pure-silk Chinese pajamas and Japanese tabi, lightweight cotton socks, from a magical Maui Grand hotel gift shop with Japanese and Chinese curios, elegant postcards, and souvenirs – remember it was 1939, just three years before Pearl Harbor. This upscale shop must have been a favorite haunt for the Maui elite and tourists, and reflected Hawai'i as an “Asian” cultural bridge**, sometimes totally missing on Maui today. In short, Wailuku back in its Golden Age as the County capital exuded sophistication, economic diversification, business optimism, linkages to Asian cultures -- all disappeared by the late 1960s (as the "malls" changed shopping patterns).
Then to more memories: two FB Friends recall fine dining dinners at the Maui Grand Hotel, especially the Sunday night roast beef dinners. One FB Friend was transfixed as a child by his first shrimp cocktail there – probably at a table with starched white tablecloth, protea flowers in a vase, and the whiff of expensive Havana cigar smoke from the lanai. Such memories, all gone with the demolition of the landmark decades ago, along with the exciting social and cultural world of grand Wailuku. We can only imagine an "evening" in Wailuku: maybe some bowling, then watching the latest Humphrey Bogart movie or the Marx Brothers, then a leisurely dinner at the Maui Grand Hotel, discussing the coming of Statehood and Maui achieving even more as a bright star in the constellation of the Hawaiian islands -- with a bottle of French St. Emilion bordeaux wine.
*The Maui Kiwanis International Club of course held its first regular meeting at the Maui Grand Hotel on June 26, 1947.
**The one Japanese-language Maui newspaper terminated publication in the mid-1950s.
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Maui Grand -- see wrap-around lanai on the second floor.