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For the past several decades, a massive concrete structure has been quietly deteriorating on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. Metal gates rusted by salt air and wooden boards nailed across entry ways blatantly make it known that this area’s off limits. What exactly is this place? The words “War Memorial” up top give some clue, but directly below, there are signs warning that trespassing may lead to injury or, even worse, death.
The Natatorium was built in the Hawaiian Beau-Art architectural style, which combined ancient Greek and Roman architectural principles.
Believe it or not, the Waikiki War Memorial and Natatorium was once the talk of the town, with a grandiose facade that out-shined the surrounding pristine stretch of beach. It boasts a 100-meter saltwater swimming pool, which Olympic Gold Medalist Duke Kahanamoku blessed with its first swim on opening day in 1927. Eventually, many other celebrity swimmers dove into the Natatorium pool with crowds cheering from the bleachers. Public elementary school students learned to swim here as part of a mandatory swim program.
The Natatorium not only functioned as a popular swimming arena but as a living memorial honoring the 10,000 people who served in WWI. That’s one of the main reasons why a small but vocal group has been fighting to restore the now decrepit Natatorium. Years of neglect forced it to a close in 1979 despite it landing a spot on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
The Natatorium once hosted world-class swimmers in its saltwater pool.
You can see it from almost anywhere on the south shore but still can’t get inside. The closest you’ll get is in its recently restored restrooms and locker rooms. The state almost went through with full revivification, which would have made the Natatorium the only saltwater pool with lifts for wheelchair-bound swimmers; however, the project was halted by an opposing group and a shift in management.
It’d be great to see the Natatorium completely restored, and if not during my time, then hopefully in time for our younger generations to enjoy. I would have given anything to have seen it during its heyday or even to have swim in it. Learn more about the Natatorium and honor our veterans at today’s Memorial Day service; happening at none other than this historic piece of Hawaii history.
Crowds cheer on women swimmers at the Natatorium.
Source/Photo Credit (third): Friends of the Natatorium
WAIKIKI WAR MEMORIAL AND NATATORIUM • Annual Memorial Day service; today at 10am • 2815 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815 • www.natatorium.org