The YWCA of Oʻahu is the oldest continuous service organization devoted to women and children in Hawaiʻi; in 1900, a small group of women met at Mrs. BF Dillingham’s home at Arcadia on Punahou Street to organize the YWCA.
From the beginning, the YWCA was organized to provide the working women of Honolulu a safe place to build friendships, develop or maintain solid values and learn skills to become more productive members of the community; but over the years, the vehicles for accomplishing those goals have changed in response to the times.
In 1904, the headquarters was housed in the Boston Building on Fort Street. YWCA girls’ basketball team competed with teams from Oʻahu College (Punahou Schools) and Kamehameha. Engleside (the first boarding home located at 251 Vineyard) opened and was jointly operated with the YMCA.
By 1906, when it joined the YWCA of the USA, recreational and athletic programs including tennis and swimming classes had been added. The first YWCA residence for young working women, The Homestead (the former Castle Estate on King Street,) was opened and addressed community concerns over the lack of safe and affordable housing accommodations in Hawaiʻi.
“The YWCA of Honolulu has its rooms in the Boston building, on Fort street, and while not as aggressive as their bretheren, are nevertheless filling a much-needed niche in the community for the comradeship and comfort of an increasing body of young women coming as strangers in a strange land. In connection with its work a home is maintained on King street, of the Castle Estate, designated the Homestead, for the benefit of members and other bachelor maids.” (Thrum, 1914)
In 1914, the first Business Women’s Club was established. By 1917, even the Queen was a member of the YWCA. The Red Cross had moved into the YWCA and a worker had been hired to help Japanese picture brides.
In 1921, the Atherton family gifted their near-downtown residence, Fernhurst, to the YWCA in memory of their daughter, Kate, and in tribute to her deep interest in the welfare of girls. The original Fernhurst served as a temporary home for as many as 10,000 young working women.
As membership and programs grew, a headquarters was needed. Several downtown locations were considered. They settled on a site on Richards Street across from the ʻIolani Palace grounds.
Noted architect, Julia Morgan (best known as the architect of Hearst Castle in California,) was hired and the new headquarters, Laniākea, “was designed and erected from two thousand miles away.”
Laniākea was the first building of architectural significance in Hawaiʻi to be designed by a woman. Constructed in 1927, it was developed and designed by women at a time in history when there were few opportunities for females to excel in male dominated professions.
Ms. Morgan designed over 700-buildings during her 47-year career and ranked the Honolulu YWCA as one of her top ten favorite projects. It immediately became a Honolulu landmark.
The building’s construction was a crowning achievement for the YWCA of Honolulu, inspiring successive generations of women to rededicate themselves to the cause of community service.
The building features the tile floors, roofs, courtyards, and arches characteristic of the Mediterranean style, which the architect chose to adapt to the climate, conditions and materials of Hawaiʻi.
Morgan regarded the structure as architecturally “frank and sincere.” She was not given to meaningless ornamentation, yet there is considerable attention to detail, such as the metal ironwork in the balconies overlooking the courtyard and the pool.
Sara Boutelle (an architectural historian) judged the Laniākea swimming pool “the most effective of all her YWCA pools,” attributing its success to the architect’s understanding of the contribution of public recreational space to the civic culture and busy lives of women.
The “Richards Street Y,” as it is affectionately known, was a meeting place for women of all generations. Popular activities were sewing and lace-making lessons, Chinese cooking classes, girls basketball and ballet.
From a place to make tea, eat safely and quietly in the city, and take naps, to a place to make the teapot, close a deal over lunch and swim laps, the YWCA of Oʻahu has been the place for women in Hawaiʻi to find support and encouragement for over 100-years.
Today, the YWCA of Oʻahu is still guided by the core concepts of the YWCA’s mission. Those concepts are to create opportunities for growth, leadership and power for women and girls, and to work for peace, justice, dignity, respect and the elimination of racism for all people. (Lots of information and images here came from the YWCA website.)
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