When the missionaries arrived on O‘ahu in April 1820 they lived in the grass houses provided by traders and ship captains in an area just mauka of the fort (mauka of what is now the Aloha Tower area). The king controlled all construction in the Kingdom, and had given orders to Boki, the Governor of Oʻahu, to construct a group of houses for the missionaries.
Governor Boki delayed building any hale pili [grass house] for the missionaries. Governor Boki wanted no interference and rejected the mission’s requested location just inland of the main village. Boki argued that his farmers already used the land for growing kalo. (Leineweber)
April 22, 1820. “The governor [Boki] does not yet step forward to furnish us with houses of any kind, and we are a little embarrassed. Find some difficulty in procuring store rooms for all our baggage, because those storehouses, which are safe, are generally occupied; and we fear to expose many articles, in what are generally termed ‘straw-houses;’ as these are so liable to destruction by fire, and so easily broken open.”
“Part we have deposited in a framed house of capt. Babcock, two stories high, inclosed in the governor’s yard; – part in Mr. Oliver’s mud-house; – part in Mr. Beckley’s; – part in Mr. Marin’s straw house; and the rest, in the different houses where we lodge.” (Missionary Herald, 1821)
May 8. “Capt. Starbuck and capt. Pigot offered to make a vigorous effort to build us convenient houses, and to promote our more comfortable establishment; the governor neglecting to build for us, but giving us leave to choose our ground where we pleased, on the uncultivated plain.”
May 9. “Selected a pleasant spot, back of the village, for the site of our buildings. Concluded that a united effort to erect them might be secured with the least exposure to suspicion, by calling a general meeting, and proposing the object publicly.”
May 10. “Boka [Boki] presented us a patch of taro, and proffered such assistance, in the way of supplies, as we might, from time to time, be disposed to ask of him.”
“A circular was issued this morning, which invited the co-operation of the friends of humanity and truth, and requested the European and American residents, both temporary and permanent, masters and officers of vessels of different flags, together with the chiefs of the island, to assemble at the house of Mr. Bingham, and hear a statement of our views, and of the views of the government, with respect to our enterprise.”
“The meeting would then take measures to secure such immediate and efficient aid to our object, as our friends might be inclined to render; and, if it should be thought advisable, would appoint a committee to superintend whatever might be undertaken. At five o’clock, P. M. a general meeting was assembled, and organized by choosing capt. Adams moderator, and brother Loomis scribe.”
“The business of the meeting having been proposed, and explained by an interpreter, to the governor, he replied, that, in regard to the houses, he intended to superintend the building of them himself; as he had orders from Rehoreho [Liholiho], to build them.”
“It was then stated, on our part, that, although the government were friendly to our object, and disposed to patronize it; yet, as we knew, that, at present, they were embarrassed with other claims; as we wished neither to become burdensome to them, or detrimental to the claims of foreign traders, whom they owed …”
“… and as several gentlemen stood ready to lend a friendly hand, in the erection of buildings for the promotion of our object; – we desired to give all the opportunity to afford whatever assistance their kindness should dictate, and their ability allow.”
“The governor again said, No. He chose to build the houses himself, according to the orders from the king.”
“Capt. Pigot then inquired, whether the governor intended soon to build comfortable houses for the mission entirely free of our expense; and he answered plainly that he did.”
“Thus far the business was settled. A committee was then appointed to consult with Boka [Boki], respecting the place, the form, and the manner of building.”
“He said that the ground, which we had chosen, could not be granted us, because it belonged to the farmers; but named a particular part of the plain, where he thought it would be best for us to have our houses.”
May 11. “Today the village of Hanaroorah [Honolulu] has been in an uproar; but we have been unmolested. There has been considerable commotion in the streets; but our habitations have enjoyed peace.”
“We are happy in the assurance that neither we, nor the efforts which were made yesterday to promote our benevolent objects, were the cause of this commotion; though the lion might take occasion to roar, at this time, to prevent the good intended.”
“The prevalence of multiplied jealousies gives currency to invidious declarations and reports; and the collision of opposite interests is often followed by agitation and violence.” (Missionary Herald, 1821)
Boki suggested a spot, “three quarters of a mile from H[onolulu] on the high road to Witeti [Waikīkī] on an extensive plain with a view of the open sea in front & lofty mountains & fertile valleys in the rear.”
It was “on the arid plain, about half a mile east of the landing, then some distance from the village, but now included in it. After a few months, he erected three temporary habitations for the mission family, residing on that island.” (Bingham)
Maria Loomis saw the benefits of Boki’s suggested location, as it would put them away from the bustling activity of the harbor and village.
The curious and social nature of the Hawaiians challenged the women, and being further away from the town had its advantages. In the traders’ houses, Loomis recorded, “our doors and windows are daily darkened by gazing natives.”
Boki began to build this row of connected houses some three months after their arrival. The typical construction of several weeks moved into several months. In late September, the mission family finally moved from the houses of the ship captains to the new hale pili [grass houses]. This line of buildings became known as Missionary Row. This was at a place called Kawaiaha‘o.
By this time Samuel Whitney and Samuel Ruggles and their wives had left to begin a Mission Station on Kauai and Elisha Loomis to Kawaihae.
So only Hiram Bingham, Daniel Chamberlain with his wife and five children and Maria Loomis and child needed to be housed in the new location. The women immediately adapted each house to their own spatial requirements. (Leineweber)
“[W]e took possession of the premises assigned us by the government, and the buildings which had been chiefly erected by Boki, in the course of four months from our landing.”
“These houses, cottages or huts, tabernacles, barns or sheds, for it is somewhat difficult to say what term would give the true idea of the structure, were built in the usual style of Hawaiian architecture, by natives; the light timbers being brought on their shoulders some 14 miles, and the grass three.”
“Had we paid for them, as they came from their hands, they might have cost us sixty dollars each.”
“To describe them justly, would be to describe, in the main, the habitations of the whole nation – which may, perhaps, as well be done here as anywhere. The Hawaiian mode of building habitations was, in a measure ingenious, and when their work was carefully executed, it was adapted to the taste of a dark, rude tribe, subsisting on roots, fish, and fruits, but by no means sufficient to meet their necessities, even in their mild climate.”
“Round posts, a few inches in diameter, are set in the ground about a yard apart, rising from three to five feet from the surface. On a shoulder, near the top, is laid a horizontal pole, two or three inches in diameter, as a plate; on this, directly over the posts, rest the rafters. A point of the post, called a finger, rises on the outside of the plate, and passes between two points of the rafter projecting over the plate and below the main shoulder.”
“The joint thus constructed is held together partly by the natural pressure of the roof, and partly by lashings of bark, vines, or grassy fibres beaten, and by hand twisted and doubled into a coarse twine, and put on manifold so as to act as four braces – two from the post, and two from the rafter, extending to the plate, all being attached six to twelve inches from the joint.”
“Three poles or posts, about three times the length of the side posts, are set in the ground, one in the centre of the building, and the others at the ends, on which rests the nether ridge pole, supporting the head of the rafters. These crossing each other, the angle above receives the upper ridge pole, which is lashed to the nether and to the head of the rafters.”
“Posts of unequal length are set at the ends of the building, sloping a little inward and reaching to the end rafters, to which their tops are tied. A door-frame, from three to six feet high, is placed between two end or side posts.”
“Thatch-poles are tied horizontally to the posts and rafters, from an inch to three inches apart, all around and from the ground to the top ridge pole. At this stage the building assumes the appearance of a huge, rude bird cage. It is then covered with the leaf of the ki, pandanus, sugarcane, or more commonly (as in the case of the habitations for us) with grass bound on in small bundles, side by side, one tier overlapping another, like shingles.”
“A house thus thatched assumes the appearance of a long hay stack without, and a cage in a hay mow within. The area or ground within, is raised a little with earth, to prevent the influx of water, and spread with grass and mats, answering usually instead of floors, tables, chairs, sofas, and beds. Air can pass through the thatching, and often there is one small opening through the thatch besides the door, for ventilation and light.”
“Such was the habitation of the Hawaiian, – the monarch, chief, and landlord, the farmer, fisherman, and cloth-beating widow, – a tent of poles and thatch – a rude attic, of one apartment on the ground – a shelter for the father, mother, larger and smaller children, friends and servants.”
“Such a habitation, whose leafy or grassy covering readily contracted mould, dust, and vermin, was insufficient to secure the inmates from dampness and the oppressive heat of the vertical sun. Such houses, snugly built and in prime order, and much more, thousands of the same model, small, indifferently built …”
“… or falling to decay, by the force of wind, rain, and sun, or the rotting of the thatching, flooring, and the posts in the ground, – are ill adapted to promote health of body, vigor of intellect, neatness of person, food, clothing or lodging, and much less, longevity.”
“They cannot be washed, scoured, polished, or painted to good purpose, nor be made suitable for good furniture, pantry, or wardrobe, nor for the security of valuable writings, books, or treasures.”
“Nothing, therefore, would be more natural than that a heathen people occupying such habitations, and going bare-headed in the sun, should feel a depression or heaviness, – a tendency to listlessness, and even lethargy, which demands the stimulus of tobacco, rum, or awa, to give a temporary relief, or to add a zest to the few low pleasures within their reach.”
“Such habitations being erected for the pioneer missionaries, they introduced some improvements – partitions, window-frames, shutters, &c. (which have been copied to some extent), and afterwards gave them better models.”
“About as destitute of chairs, at first, as any of the natives, we made long seats of plank by the sides of one room, which we used for a school and for social and public worship for a time.” (Bingham, 21-years)
To help remember and learn from the past, as well as best portray the mission experience, Hawaiian Mission Houses has a Hale Pili under construction on the Hawaiian Mission Houses grounds, in about the same place as the hale pili of Missionary Row.
It is a representation of the hale described in journals and letters of William and Clarissa Richards, Charles and Harriet Stewart, and Betsey Stockton, all of whom lived in the hale that this reproduction represents. The dimensions primarily follow the Richards’ description.
To ensure safety and durability of this reproduction, a mixture of traditional (such as ‘ōhi’a) and modern materials, (such as the artificial pili grass) and techniques were used to build the hale. The present pili grass planted along the coral wall at Hawaiian Mission Houses is the species of grass that covered the original structure.
Hawaiian Mission Houses is honored to be named for a Programmatic Award through Historic Hawai‘i Foundation’s 2020 Preservation Honor Awards program for the construction of the Hale Pili.
The Preservation Award is to the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, Earl Kawa‘a, Dwight Kauahikaua, and other stakeholders for the construction of a Hale Pili.
The Hale Pili project is being awarded for the construction on this historic site to represents the many hale pili that were the original building type on the site in the early 19th century, and for the program to train craftmanship into traditional building trades.
Not only is it representative of the prior time, it was a learning experience using Hawaiian culture place-based curriculum based Hawaiian culture, contextual Hawaiian language learning and hale construction skills to mentor youth at Roosevelt High School and Kinai ‘Eha, a non-profit, vocational training program.
Kawa‘a and Kauahikaua served as educators in hale building techniques; Hawaiian language and culture will live on and be transferred to all through the form and function of the hale itself.
To ensure safety and durability of this reproduction, an integration of traditional (‘ōhi‘a) and modern materials (such as artificial pili grass) and techniques were used to build the hale.
(The Hale Pili is built adjacent to the oldest intact Western structure in the Islands, a wood-frame house built in 1821, so fire protection is critical to not risk damage to the adjoining.)
The programmatic effort demonstrates ways in which traditional buildings can be reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary era and traditional knowledge passed to new generations.