Historic Architecture: Dillingham Transportation Building

The Dillingham Transportation Building is among the many historical buildings in Downtown Honolulu that will be fascinating to any architecture enthusiast.

It was built in 1929 and is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. Like several other of Honolulu’s historical buildings, it was constructed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

The architect, Lincoln Rogers, also designed the nearby Hawaii State Art Museum which was constructed a year earlier in 1928. These buildings remain, perhaps stubbornly, as gleaming glass high-rises have climbed to the sky around them over the years.

The Dillingham Transportation Building is unique in that in addition to the Italian Renaissance style, it features distinct elements of the Art Deco School. The building’s lobby is the most prominent interior part of the building, glimmering with earth-toned polished marble and typical bronzed Art Deco motifs. Its façade is almost boastfully reminiscent of the span of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The Art Deco Lobby of the Dillingham Transportation Buidling

The building was built for Walter F. Dillingham, whose father Benjamin Dillingham founded the Oahu Railway and Land Company. That company became pivotal in the development of commercial agriculture in central Oahu, creating the island’s first railway.

The Dillingham name is among the families who wielded vast power and influence over Hawaii’s bountiful resources. Benjamin Dillingham was a close friend of King David Kalakaua and later Queen Liliuokalani. Although he opposed the Queen’s overthrow in 1893, he did support the United States’ annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898.

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Before constructing the Dillingham Transportation Building, Walter was behind the draining of the wetlands of Waikiki and creating the Ala Wai Canal. That project became crucial to the development of Waikiki as a tourist and resort destination. Obviously, the impact of that project was and continues to be immense, as Hawaii’s tourism industry grows and remains the largest contributor to Hawaii’s increasingly diverse economy.

During the early 1970s, the Dillingham Transportation Building was home to the Territorial Tavern. The restaurant and cabaret became an incubator for rebirth of traditional Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. It regularly featured now-legendary acts like the Sons of Hawaii, the Beamer Brothers, Eddie Kamae, and Dennis Kamakahi.

Despite Franklin Dillingham’s friendship with Hawaiian royalty before the overthrow, the Dillingham name is linked inextricably with other names like Bishop, Dole, Castle & Cooke, Campbell, and Alexander & Baldwin. These missionary families are considered by many as “robber barons” who exploited Hawaii’s resources and people for personal gain.

Arched outdoor hall at the Dillingham Ttransportation Building

The Dillingham Transportation Building is now a diversified office building, home to law and offices, advertising agencies, dentists, and all manner of white collar organizations. But it isn’t just a fancy headquarters for nine-to-fivers. The building’s ground floor features the Honolulu Café and Mama-Ya Restaurant. It is also home to Ferguson’s Irish Pub, where aloha-clad executives escape the grind with fine cocktails and muted conversations.

Located at 735 Bishop Street, the venerable old edifice is just a short walk from many other notable Downtown Honolulu landmarks. Iolani Palace, the State Capitol Building and the Hawaii Theatre Center are within a half-mile of the Dillingham Transportation Building. The Alexander & Baldwin Building, an impressive historic headquarters for another hugely influential missionary family, is just across Bishop Street.

Dillingham Transportation Building from Ala Moana Blvd.

For any fan of historic architecture, the Dillingham Transportation Building is a must see piece of Hawaii history. And with the huge amount of new eateries, galleries and taverns in Downtown Honolulu, it’s easy to make a full day of taking a grand tour of some Hawaii’s most historic buildings.