In 1834, King Kamehameha III organized the first police force in the Hawaiian Islands. This was only four years after the inception of London’s first police force, and twelve years before that of any American city.
In 1845, the king appointed the first Marshal of the island, and sheriffs were appointed for each island. After counties were organized in 1905, sheriffs were elected for each county.
In 1885, the Minister of the Interior under King Kalākaua purchased property at Bethel and Merchant Streets and began construction of a new Police Court building on the site. The May 21, 1885 Daily Bulletin noted, “The work on the new Police Station building is progressing rapidly.”
The Chinatown fire of 1886 destroyed the old King Street police station so all of the functions of that building were transferred to the nearly completed Merchant Street structure, a two-story brick building.
The cell block was in the basement, the offices of the Marshal, Deputy Marshal, Police Justice and a detention area were on the ground floor. The courtroom was on the second floor.
In 1930, this building was demolished in order to construct the present structure on the site. The earlier brick building on the same site was built during the era of Walter Murray Gibson, so the new structure is also known as the Walter Murray Gibson Building.
While Gibson was in the Legislative Assembly (1878-1882) he became Finance Committee Chairman and under his leadership allocations of public funds showed his concern for the national pride of Hawaiians: $500 to Henri Berger, leader of the Hawaiian Band, for composing the music for Hawaii Ponoʻi, the new national anthem; $10,000 for a bronze statue of Kamehameha I; and $50,000 to begin construction of a new ʻIolani Palace, to house King Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani, and all their successors. (Adler – Kamins)
He was also Member of Privy Council and Board of Health (1880, Health President 1882;) Commissioner of Crown Lands (1882;) Board of Education, President (1883;) Attorney General (1883;) House of Nobles (1882-1886;) Secretary of War & Navy (1886;) Premier and Minister of the Interior (1886) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1882-1887.)
In his new capacities, Gibson’s first notable accomplishment was his development of a new monetary system for the island nation. The new money was printed in San Francisco and the bills featured Kalākaua. This was followed by the creation of a postal system; Gibson himself designed and printed the postage stamps for the Hawaiian kingdom. (Lowe)
Back to the building …
The later police station cost $235,000 and used eleven tons of French marble, Philippine mahogany and Waianae sandstone. The building, designed by local architect, Louis E. Davis, was occupied on September 29, 1931. (The Nuʻuanu Street addition was constructed in 1986.)
The style is Spanish Colonial Revival, also called Spanish Mission Revival; at the time it was built, the Spanish colonial revival style structure was becoming an accepted style for public edifices in Honolulu.
It is a three-story (with basement) Mediterranean-style reinforced-concrete building with plaster finish and ornate terra-cotta entry and decorative interior detailing. Various window and balcony elements reflect interior stairway. Interesting curved railings of exterior stair in 1939 addition at ‘Ewa end of building.
The vice squad, weights and measures, military police and shore patrol were in the basement, the receiving area, general offices, foot patrol, examiner of chauffeurs and traffic department were on the main floor, the jail was on the second floor, and district courtrooms and offices were on the top floor.
A one-and-a-half-story entrance hall on the ground floor at the Merchant/Bethel Streets corner contains a stairway to the first floor. Access to the second and third floors is via an open core stairway contained in the tower on Bethel Street.
During wartime, the first floor housed the Alien Property Custodian, which confiscated property owned by foreign citizens, beginning with the declaration of martial law on December 7, 1941. (It was this agency that closed the Yokohama Specie Bank across the street in 1941.)
The Police Department left the building in 1967, when they moved to the old Sears store in Pawaʻa. The Old Police Station, or Court Building as it was also known, continued to house the District Courts.
The courts, in turn, were moved in 1983 and the building stood empty for three years in the mid-1980s while the city debated the building’s future.
After a 1985 plan to use it as the vehicle and driver licensing operations center was rejected following public objection, in 1985 the city decided to use the building for the city’s Real Property Assessment and Public Housing Divisions.
The building is part of the Merchant Street Historical District, occupying four square blocks in downtown Honolulu, containing a variety of interesting old buildings. The area is what remains of “old” Honolulu.
Merchant Street, once the main street of the financial and governmental part of the city, bisects the district and is lined with low-rise, well maintained buildings of character and distinctions. (Lots of information here is from the HABS.)