Hawaiian architecture evolved over time, starting with Hawaiians use of natural resources, to influences from all of the various visitors to Hawaiʻi.
Soon after missionary arrival, builders began to incorporate coral blocks from Hawaiʻi’s reefs, with the coral serving as a substitute for bricks the American and Europeans used in their homeland.
Here are a few examples of existing or remnants remaining today of the early use of coral blocks in building construction.
Nearby at what is now the Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, the Chamberlain House (Ka Hale Kamalani) was built in 1831 from materials procured locally: coral blocks cut from reefs offshore and lumber salvaged from ships.
Designed by the mission’s quartermaster, Levi Chamberlain, to hold supplies as well as people, it had two stories, an attic, and a cellar. The windows are larger, more numerous, and shuttered against the sun. The building now serves as the main exhibition hall for the Museum.
Lāhainā Fort Ruins
The reconstructed remains of one old Lāhainā Fort wall still stand at this old lockup. This fort overlooked one of the canals of Lāhainā, now a paved street, and was built to protect the town after unruly sailors who fired a canon at Rev. Richard’s house.
The fort was built in 1831-1832 in which to incarcerate rowdy sailors and others who disobeyed the law. The fort was used mostly as a prison. It was torn down in the 1850s to supply stones for the construction of Hale Paʻahao – the prison on Prison Street.
Down the street, Congregational missionaries had earlier begun (1836) the construction of Kawaiahaʻo Church. The “Stone Church,” as it came to be known, is in fact not built of stone, but of giant slabs of coral hewn from ocean reefs.
These slabs had to be quarried from under water; each weighed more than 1,000 pounds. Natives dove 10 to 20 feet to hand-chisel these pieces from the reef, then raised them to the surface, loaded some 14,000 of the slabs into canoes and ferried them to shore.
Following five years of construction, The Stone Church was ready for dedication ceremonies on July 21, 1842. King Kamehameha III, who contributed generously to the fund to build the church, attended the service.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace
Catholic missionaries broke ground for the new church to be built on July 9, 1840. It coincided with the Feast of Our Lady of Peace, patroness of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary religious institute of which the missionaries were members
The cornerstone was officially laid in a ceremony on August 6 of that year. Construction continued after groundbreaking with devoted Native Hawaiian volunteers harvesting blocks of coral from the shores of Ala Moana, Kakaʻako and Waikīkī. On August 14, 1843, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace was consecrated and dedicated.
Also at Mission Houses, in 1841, a covered porch and balcony were added to the frame house, and an extra bedroom was built next door out of coral blocks. Both additions show further adaptation to an indoor-outdoor lifestyle appropriate to the climate.
The extra coral building later became the mission’s Print House (Ka Hale Paʻi) and now serves as a museum exhibit to show how the missionaries and native Hawaiians worked together to produce the first materials printed in the Hawaiian language.
ʻIolani Palace Barracks
Originally completed in 1871, and looking like a medieval castle, 4000-coral blocks were stacked with parapets and towers to make Halekoa, the ʻIolani Barracks (with its open courtyard surrounded by rooms once used by the guards as a mess hall, kitchen, dispensary, berth room, and lockup.)
The Barracks was originally located on what are now the grounds of the Hawaiʻi State Capitol, mauka of the Palace. After being dismantled block by block, ʻIolani Barracks was moved and reconstructed at its present location in 1965.
Fort Kekuanohu (Fort at Honolulu)
Back in Honolulu, in 1815, Kamehameha I granted Russian representatives permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor. Instead, they began building a fort and raised the Russian flag. When Kamehameha discovered this, the Russians were removed.
The fort had 340-by-300-foot long, 12-foot high and 20-foot thick walls made of coral. Its original purpose was to protect Honolulu by keeping enemy or otherwise undesirable ships out. But, it was also used to keep things in (it also served as a prison.)
The fort’s massive 12-foot walls were torn apart and the fort dismantled in 1857 and used to fill the harbor to accommodate an expanding downtown.
Honolulu Harbor – Esplanade – Harbor Expansion
As Honolulu developed and grew, lots of changes happened, including along its waterfront. What is now known as Queen Street was actually the water’s edge.
Then, from 1856 to 1860, the work of filling in the land to create an area known as the “Esplanade” or “Ainahou,” and building up a water-front and dredging the harbor to a depth from 20 to 25-feet took place.
Following the demolition of Fort Kekuanohu (Fort Honolulu) in 1857; its walls became the 2,000-foot retaining wall used to extend the land out onto the shallow reef in the harbor.
The remaining fort materials were used as fill to create what came to be known as the Esplanade (it’s where Aloha Tower and surrounding land now stand – evidence of the coral blocks from the old Fort can still be seen at Pier 12, ʻEwa of the Aloha Tower cruise ship pier.)
Hawaiʻi law (§171-58.5 HRS) now prohibits the mining or taking of sand, dead coral or coral rubble, rocks, soil or other marine deposits seaward from the shoreline, except for non-commercial uses in volumes that do not exceed 1-gallon per person per day, or to allow replenishment or protection of public shoreline area and government maintenance of stream mouths and shoreline.