Kaupo School demolished during restoration project
Contractors say old Kaupo School was too far gone to fix
A century-old schoolhouse in Kaupo that was slated for restoration has instead been “effectively demolished,” putting the property’s historic status in jeopardy and upsetting community members who said they’ve lost a piece of their history.
“What was supposed to be a very exciting restoration project for the community turned into a historical disaster,” said Jade Alohalani Smith, Kaupo representative on the Aha Moku Maui Island Council.
But Kaupo Community Association officers and project contractors said the building was beyond saving — something they didn’t realize until they started taking it apart.
“The building had been neglected for so long that it was not an option,” project architect Jim Niess said. “We had to do what we did, and it did upset some folks in the community, I understand. But I also understand that there were many community meetings along the way, and our drawings, if anybody read them carefully, left this option open.”
County officials, meanwhile, have ordered the work to stop while they and the community decide the best way forward.
The single-story, two-room schoolhouse and a two-bedroom teacher’s cottage were built around 1923 to serve the small East Maui community, according to Kaupo School’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A road from Kipahulu to Kaupo was built and opened to traffic in 1937, and as many people began moving to bigger towns, population in the area declined in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1964, Kaupo School had to close after enrollment fell to five students, who instead were sent to Hana School about 20 miles away. But after a series of landslides in 1982 blocked the road to Hana, Kaupo School reopened briefly.
Once the road was safe to drive again, the school sat vacant except for a few community uses, while the teacher’s cottage continued to be rented out. Eventually, both buildings fell into disrepair. Restoration projects over the years have included the addition of restrooms, as well as replacement of the floors and roof of the schoolhouse nearly 20 years ago.
As one of the few buildings in the area, the schoolhouse became a gathering place for weddings, funerals and baby luau, as well as for stranded travelers seeking shelter during storms, according to a state Department of Land and Natural Resources report.
Smith, who served as secretary of the Kaupo Community Association from 2006 to 2008 and president from 2013 to 2015, said residents have been wanting to restore the schoolhouse for a long time. In 2014, the association got a permit from the state to maintain the property. Eventually, they wanted to see the schoolhouse become a community center.
In 2018, the state approved a 55-year lease of the land to the Kaupo Community Association, paving the way for use of the school as a community center, according to DLNR documents. Control and management of the property was assigned to Maui County.
Restoration work kicked off with a community blessing in August. Smith said residents expected restoration to take several months to a year, possibly longer. They were shocked to see the old building torn down just a couple of months later.
“To me, it’s hard because we’ve all worked for the restoration purpose,” said Smith, who noticed the work when she drove by in October. “We could’ve had it reconstructed a long time ago if we went that route. But we didn’t want to. We wanted it restored as is.”
John “Johnny V” Voxland was driving by the schoolhouse when he noticed black construction tarps around the site. He went to check it out and discovered the school had been “leveled.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Voxland said. “That was just a big surprise.”
Voxland was upset at first because he had been involved in the previous restoration that replaced the old corrugated tin roof and the rotting foundation. He does stone restoration work in South Maui and said if the schoolhouse were beyond saving, “I wouldn’t have put the time in the roof.” However, he added, community members had known for a long time that lead paint was an issue.
“I got to thinking about it and if it wasn’t the tear-down, it would’ve been the lead paint that would’ve been the demise,” Voxland said.
Linda Domen runs the Kaupo Store and was a part-time substitute teacher at Kaupo School back in the early 1980s, when her kids were among the dozen or so students in grades 1 through 8. During the 2002 restoration, as treasurer of the association, she helped secure about $50,000 worth of grants for the project. She said the kupuna were so happy to see the building restored and hoped to have a reunion in it once it was finished.
“There’s such a wonderful significance in having an old historic building standing in a community, especially a small remote community as Kaupo,” Domen said. “It represents the unique and lively past that has on the most part slipped away, except for in the memories of those who are left living that remember the activities and importance of that building.”
Domen said many of the community members “were saddened when we realized that it was to be completely dismantled and replaced with a brand-new building.”
“We didn’t have the information in our community meetings that it would be a possibility that it couldn’t be restored,” she said. “The word used was always ‘restoration,’ never ‘tear down and replace.’ It would have been nice if the community would have been informed and given a chance to be included in the decisions and for it to not have come as a surprise, when it was too late to change or do anything to help save the historic building.”
‘It just became impossible to save’
Originally, Niess said, “the intent was just to maybe patch and repair certain places” and bring the building up to code. They were hoping the walls had enough integrity to be restored. However, once they started removing the “belly band” that retains the siding boards to the floor, they realized just how extensive the deterioration was.
“The walls were rotted. . . . Not only that but because the floor was out of level, the walls weren’t perfectly vertical,” Niess said. “So the window frames weren’t square anymore. One thing leads to another, and it just gets impossible to bring back something that’s been neglected for so long.”
Niess said the scope of the damage “wasn’t as apparent when we did the drawings,” though they knew it was a possibility and had left the option open. As he’s done with many other buildings, Niess crawled underneath the schoolhouse and poked around the wood, revealing more issues under the floor. Within three or four weeks of starting the project, “it was obvious” the building couldn’t be restored.
“Long story short, it just became impossible to save any pieces of the building, so yes, the historic building came down, and it’s being replaced,” said Niess, who has about 50 years of experience in architecture and historical preservation.
When asked if contractors had told the county before tearing down the building, Niess said, “Well, no. By then, the decision had been made.” However, he said they believed they were in conformance with the building permit and emphasized that “the building is being reconstructed exactly as it was.”
“It will have a historic visual feel, but they’re right,” he said of residents who felt that a piece of history was gone.
“From a preservation community point, it’s a loss,” Niess said. “Sometimes, you just have to face reality. What’s the future and what’s the goal here? The goal is to make a community center that’s going to be structurally safe and serve for 40 or 50 years before it needs substantial maintenance.”
Project manager and Kaupo Community Association member Jonathan Starr said “it was kind of a surprise to have people complain.” He said that the plans were finalized about a year ago and that they had been presented to the community.
“I don’t understand it at all because what we’re doing is exactly what’s in the plans that were approved by the county,” Starr said. “We have been showing everybody for over a year.”
Starr also said the building “wasn’t torn down” but was actually taken down section by section and replaced. He pointed out that the school hasn’t been safe to enter for years, and that the new one they’re building will match the old one in design, though much safer and with American with Disabilities Act accessibility.
“The building was basically falling down,” Starr said. “So we designed it so the work would be safe and so it would meet code, but otherwise the building is exactly as it was in the mid-30s.”
Association President Linda Clark also said the plans were made available to the community, and that the association always gave updates at its quarterly meetings.
“I think we all have different perspectives of how the restoration rehabilitation would’ve, should’ve happened,” she said. “I really think that it’s just that. I feel like I trusted our architect and our contractors to do it according to the plans.”
Clark is a fourth-generation Kaupo resident and said she understands the significance of the school.
“I just want to see the project completed, and I hope it doesn’t affect the historical status,” she said. “I have two board members that went to that school, and my dad went to that school. We have a lot of connection to it.”
She said the project was supposed to be finished in March, but now “we’ll have to wait and hear from the county.”
County steps in
In the eyes of the county Planning Department, one thing is clear — the building has been torn down.
“If original materials could not be used, it means the whole building had to be demolished and rebuilt using new materials,” Planning Director Michele McLean said in an email. “This is, in fact, what happened because there is nothing left of the original structure.”
McLean said the schoolhouse “was in poor condition but was nonetheless able to be restored.”
“Instead of being restored, which is how the building permit and the use of the property were approved, it was effectively demolished,” McLean said. “That was a decision made and an action taken without our input or approval. It is not clear to us who made that decision; we hope to find out.”
McLean said the department first heard about the issue on Oct. 25. Planning officials spoke to Kaupo residents, the architect and others involved in the project, and conducted site visits shortly after and into mid-November. They also attended a community meeting on Dec. 28.
“We are issuing a notice of warning, and they must stop work,” McLean said. “We have to figure out how the property can be used, because a community center is not a permitted use in the ag district. Restoration of a historic building is a permitted use, which is how we could approve the building permit. Now that the historic building is gone, it’s not clear what the permitted use can be.”
McLean said that the department also will likely issue a notice of violation and levy fines.
She added that the entire property is listed as a historic site, “and this action has threatened that status.”
Like the community, county cultural resources planner Annalise Kehler believed the school was going to be rehabilitated, not rebuilt. The original building permit issued in July describes the project as “repair/ALT” or alteration, and the project was called the “Rehabilitation of Kaupo School.”
“The whole time this was represented as a rehabilitation, not a reconstruction,” Kehler said. “The two actions have very different meanings. Rehab involves preserving as much of the original material and architectural features as possible, repairing what can be repaired, and replacing only the materials and elements that are so rotted they cannot be repaired.
“Reconstruction involves replicating, through new construction and materials, a building that no longer exists.”
McLean said that contrary to the association’s claims, “They did not follow the approved plans.”
“When they realized that the building could not be saved — which we question, and which we did not have an opportunity to investigate ourselves (and we have an expert, Annalise, on staff) — they should have amended the building permit scope to demolition and reconstruction,” McLean said.
If they had amended the permit, the county would have consulted with the State Historic Preservation Division on “appropriate mitigation,” since the schoolhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“That mitigation, which would have included specific types of photographs and architectural drawings, would have had to occur before demolition,” McLean said. “Now, it cannot be done.”
The Maui News also reached out to the DLNR, which oversees the State Historic Preservation Division. DLNR spokesman AJ McWhorter said that “this has become an active investigation that we can’t further comment on.”
Future of the site
While residents may disagree over what happened with the schoolhouse, they are united in wanting it to become a community center.
Charles Aki, who was born and raised in Kaupo, attended the school from 1947 to 1953. He said there were more than 20 students at the time, and he remembered lining up every morning to salute the American flag before sitting down for English lessons, spelling and arithmetic. Aki, whose father also attended Kaupo School, said it was “very important” to the community, which back then relied on one school, one store and one post office.
“To me, I feel it’s good to repair and all that, and to make use of ’em instead of just letting ’em sit there and get all rot,” he said. “Can use it as a community center or something like that.”
However, it’s unclear whether that can still happen. McLean said the property is zoned agricultural, and one of the permitted uses includes “retention, restoration, rehabilitation or improvement of buildings, sites, or cultural landscapes of historical or archaeological significance.”
“A school or community center is not a permitted use, but restoring a historic site (and using it) is,” McLean said. “So we informed them that the use of the building as a community center could be allowed if it were done through this historic preservation provision. Now that the building has been demolished, there is nothing historic to retain, restore or rehabilitate, so a reconstructed building could only be used for other lawful uses in the agricultural district.”
McLean added that funding for the project “may also be in jeopardy since the funding requests were also for historic preservation.” The association had secured about $1.1 million, mostly from the state Legislature as well as from the county, a Historic Hawaii Foundation grant and community donations.
Residents, meanwhile, are saddened by the loss of the old schoolhouse, another hint that the Kaupo of old is fading away.
“The school was a touchstone; a window to the past,” Domen said. “It was a significant artifact of the history of Kaupo. When people would enter the building, they would have a very nostalgic feeling. There were so many memories encapsulated within those walls.”
“Old buildings,” Domen added, “are like a kupuna, to be treasured and honored.”
Voxland lives in Waiehu but spends weekends in Kaupo, where he purchased property 20 years ago.
“To me, having that school come down was the end of a tiny treasure of ‘unchange’ on Maui,” Voxland said. “You go through the little hamlet of Kaupo, and everything was the same as what it was 100 years ago. So it was like a little museum to me, a little time warp that you’d pass through in five minutes. . . . Now that the school is gone and it’s going to be a new building, time has finally caught up to Kaupo.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at email@example.com.