Just a short five-or-ten minute walk north on King Street from the iconic and much-visited Honolulu landmarks Iolani Palace, Kawaiahao Church, and the Hawaiian Mission Houses is Chinatown. Now designated as Culture & Arts District, the area is home to many fine eateries and a handful of quirky art galleries. And while they are great reasons to spend an afternoon strolling Chinatown’s cobbled sidewalks, lovers of architecture will find a treasure trove of old buildings constructed before and during Hawaii’s formative years as a United States Territory. Too many to list here, certainly.
Perhaps the highest concentration of these buildings is the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Merchant Street (technically on the cusp between Chinatown and Downtown), with the buildings on each of the four corners of the intersection having their own stories to tell.
Built in 1854 in the Greek Revival style, Melcher’s Building is constructed of coral blocks covered with stucco. It is the oldest commercial building in the city of Honolulu. It was originally the headquarters of merchant Gustav Melcher and sits on Merchant Street, which was at the time of construction the center of commerce in Honolulu. It has since been occupied by the Hawaiian Dredging Company and the City Prosecutor’s Office. It now serves as an office annex for the City and County of Honolulu.
King Kamehameha V Post Office Building
Directly across Merchant Street, the cornerstone of the King Kamehameha V Post Office was constructed using groundbreaking methods, including prefabricated concrete blocks secured with iron rods. Designed and built by J.G. Osborne, a master mason from Yorkshire, England, it served for a time as the Territorial Tax Office. It is now home to Kumu Kahua Theater, which produces locally-written and produced theatrical productions focusing on themes unique to Hawaii. The building was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1987.
Yokohama Specie Bank
The elegant and ornate Yokohama Specie Bank is built in the relatively flamboyant Beaux Arts style. Erected in 1908, it and its contents were confiscated by the Alien Custodian Agency following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. It was then used as a 250-person cellblock, generally housing drunken sailors too inebriated to return to their ship. Occupied at one time by the Honolulu Publishing Company, it is now home to the Cole Academy, a private early education institution.
Old Police Station
This is an interesting building in that it incorporates elements of the Spanish Colonial and Art Deco styles. Construction began in 1930 and used Waianae sandstone and imported French marble. It was renovated by the City and County of Honolulu in 1986 and now serves as the headquarters of the City Real Property Assessment Office. It is interesting to note that at the time of its construction, Honolulu already had one of the oldest police forces in the world, established in 1834 during the reign of King Kamehameha III.
There are many more historically significant buildings in Chinatown, several of them on the same respective blocks as each of those described above. A short walk in any direction will take you past an edifice of interest. So if you’re browsing the Chinatown Arts District, be sure to take them in.