This story is one of the unhappy stories I had while at DLNR. We were dealing with the last of its kind – so losing it had a different, and more permanent, meaning. I hope telling the story will help keep the memory alive.
This is not only of personal concern, at the time I was also the State Historic Preservation Officer.
Anyway, on December 27, 1850, the Honolulu Fire Department was established, by signature of King Kamehameha III, and was the first of its kind in the Hawaiian Islands, and the only Fire Department in the United States established by a ruling monarch.
Back in those early days, firefighting equipment was primarily buckets and portable water supplies. As the department grew, several hand-drawn engine companies were added.
In 1870, the tallest structure in Honolulu was the bell tower of Central Fire Station, then-located on Union Street. Spotters would sit in the tower, ready to sound the alarm. Central Fire Station was later relocated to its present site at Beretania and Fort Streets.
Until 1901, most business buildings in downtown were 2-3 floors, that year the 6-floor Stangenwald Building was completed; it remained the tallest building until 1950, when the seven-story Edgewater Hotel in Waikīkī took over that title.
So, for a very long time, firefighting in Honolulu was handled pretty close to the ground, with buildings essentially accessible via hand-raised ladders.
Also, back then, with all the buildings relatively similar in scale, spotting was easy from the towers adjoining the stations and firefighting equipment was pretty consistent to deal with the similar building heights.
The old Kakaʻako Fire Station was occupied on October 1, 1929, by Engine Company Number 9. In 1930, a hook and ladder building was constructed. It housed a ladder truck for 20 years.
It housed the equipment that transported ladders to the downtown fires. Its size and shape showed the scale of Honolulu’s buildings.
The lengths of the ladders on the ladder trucks were tall enough to effectively fight downtown structure fires. Taller ladders were not needed, because Honolulu, then, did not have taller structures.
And that’s the point of this story.
When the Fire Department was going through its consultation with DLNR’s Historic Preservation Division, I got involved in the discussions when I heard they wanted to get rid of the ladder building.
It was the last of its kind (all other ladder buildings (typically attached to the various fire stations) had been removed from the other older fire stations.) Kakaʻako had the last one.
I suspect some may wonder what the big deal was – that’s the position the Fire Department took. What is so important about a rotting wood attachment to an historic Fire Station? (The Kakaʻako Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.)
And, with a brand spanking new Administration building going up next door, this old building was an eyesore and in the way.
We had a meeting with the top brass from the Fire Department – the Chief and his Assistant Chiefs.
I tried to convince them that simply looking at the ladder building (that they wanted to remove) helped tell the story of what Downtown Honolulu used to look like (especially in the present context of predominantly high-rise and relatively few low-rise structures.)
That building helped tell the story of the other buildings in the area and the look of Honolulu at the time.
Well, after several discussions (several of them not pleasant,) we compromised on retaining the facades of the front and rear of the ladder building, with trellising forming the height of the building (trying to give the sense of scale of the ladder building) and tiles on the ground noting the perimeter walls.
Unfortunately, during the course of construction, we were belatedly-told that the facades could not be saved and there was nothing anyone could do about that.
I’ve been back to the Station and was happy to see the tiled outline of the old ladder building in the connecting walkway between the Old Kakaʻako Station and the Administration building.
It’s difficult to imagine that Honolulu was once a low-rise central business district – and was that way for such a long time. Fortunately, we have some representation of what it looked like, told through the tiles on the ground.