I wandered the grounds of Old Maui High School in Hamakuapoko on Saturday with the scores of alumni in blue T-shirts delighted to be back on campus to celebrate the school's 100th anniversary.
One was Mayor Alan Arakawa, Class of '69, who discovered there another world outside of his family's farm in Omaopio. "This is where I learned speech, English," he said. This was where he ran down the tunnel of trees to the beach and never forgot it, "breathtaking every time."
Another alumnus was Charles Gima, Class of '47, whose father worked "kompan" in the fields of HC&S. He became an engineer, and of the family's 10 children, one became a doctor, another an architect, another a college professor.
"Oh, we loved it here," said Shirley Choy Perry. "The beauty."
Yes, the beauty.
I enjoyed the performances - the aging cheerleaders, the Elvis impersonator, the humor of master of ceremonies Curtis Lee, the good fun. "Go Sabers!"
But what stole the show for me were the classic bones of the administration building, the preservation of which was the reason Friends of Old Maui High School was founded almost a decade ago.
In 1916, while his cousin Charles W. Dickey was on Maui designing the plans for Makawao Union Church and his new home, Kaluanui, Harry Baldwin asked the renowned architect to also design a new classroom and administration building for Maui High School to replace the small, wooden one erected by the County of Maui in 1913.
The following year, according to the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, six members of the Baldwin family pledged $5,000 each to build the school to Dickey's plans. Territorial law, however, did not allow for legislative appropriations to be augmented by private resources, and the $30,000 offered by the Baldwins was turned down.
It was not until 1921, when Maui High School was fully funded, that Dickey's design was built. He lifted the site so the students had a new horizon over the cane fields to the ocean, and endowed the children of plantation workers with a 17,000-square-foot architectural feast of a Mediterranean revival villa, all arches and pilasters and proportions based on the golden mean.
Students from the camps had never seen such inspiring architecture, nor spent time in such a sublime setting. Maui High quickly became an idyll, a refuge from the harsh life at home, remembered as a place of great earning and great peace. These bare walls remind me of the ruins of a Greek temple, I thought, looking up at the makai wing, a temple of learning. No other campus in the territory, Punahou included, and Kamehameha, too, has a more uplifting setting.
So it's a shame that after almost 10 years of effort by the Friends, progress in restoring the building as a prerequisite to creating a center named for its most famous alumna, the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, has slowed to a crawl.
According to the mayor, a high-level committee has been convened to explore a direction for the the entire site, but the county is still not clear where it wants to go. "It's going to cost tens of millions of dollars," he said.
Meanwhile, the rebar in the administration building is rusting away after 92 years near the sea, causing deterioration of the concrete, which is fast reaching the point where it cannot be repaired. "If it doesn't happen soon it may never happen," Friends past president Barbara Long told me. "We may lose a true architectural treasure."
The problem is, to develop the site, land-use changes are needed from the state Land Use Commission and the Maui Planning Commission. But these can't happen until the county decides on its intended long-term "use."
The Glenn Mason firm in Honolulu, expert in historical building preservation, has come up with a plan to stabilize the building, that is, put in floors and a roof, and close the window openings. This can be done for less than $1 million, financially doable.
But a building permit can't be granted until a water system is installed to handle "fire flow." The Friends doesn't have the money to build a new well (the old well serving the campus collapsed). And the county is reluctant to extend county waterlines until it decides on a future for the historic campus.
"It's a Catch-22," said Long.
Meanwhile, it's a great place for reunions. What a pity if no other use is found that honors its great past.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.