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The oldest of the inhabited islands, emerging from the ocean some five million years ago, Kauai is also the northernmost populated island. It is the fourth-largest island, covering 552.3 square miles. The now inactive volcanic shield which formed the island is the dominant landform and reaches elevations of 5,148 at Waialeale and 5,243 feet at Kawaikini. Directly exposed to trade winds ascending abruptly over cliffs, the mountain summit of Kauai is one of the wettest spots on the earth, with an average annual rainfall of 444 inches at Waialeale. As with the other inhabited Hawaiian Islands, human development remains concentrated within the coastal plain that extends around approximately three-quarters of the island. The rugged Na Pali coast on the northwest side of Kauai, which is under the management of the Hawaii State Parks Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, remains inaccessible except by foot or boat.

Removed from the rest of the chain by the wide and tempestuous Kaieie Waho, or Kauai channel, Kauai is known as “the separate kingdom.” Conquered by neither Kalaunuiohua nor Kamehameha the Great in their quests to unite the Hawaiian Islands, it remains the only major island in the chain for which history records no successful invasions.

In addition to its long history of political independence, the island also has maintained an architectural distinctiveness, while reflecting mainstream stylistic tendencies. Buffeted by Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and then smashed by Hurricane Iniki ten years later, Kauai has nevertheless managed to retain much of its significant architectural heritage and its rural sensibility. Buildings by Honolulu architect Hart Wood, especially his early excursions into regional architecture, are noteworthy. The Waioli Mission Hall (KA46) was an important influence on the work of both Wood and his partner C. W. Dickey. Several recent religious buildings also rise above the norm, ranging in character from the modest Hanapepe Hawaiian Congregational Church (KA11) to the modern lines of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church (KA28) and the majestic San Marga Iraivan Temple (KA31). A number of other one-of-a-kind structures dot the island, including Russian Fort Elizabeth (KA7), Grove Farm Homestead (KA21), the Opaekaa Bridge (KA32), Kilauea's stone plantation buildings, and Hanalei's Haraguchi Rice Mill (KA42). All of these and more make a journey to Kauai an architecturally enriching experience.

Kauai is also home to the mystical Menehune, the little people of Hawaii, who reputedly could accomplish great building tasks in a single night. The Menehune Ditch in Waimea, a rare example of early Hawaiian dressed stone-work, is ascribed to their ability, although most of its twenty-four-foot-high stone wall today lies buried by the adjoining roadway. Aliʻi (member of the ruling class) Lohiau, beloved by the volcano goddess Pele, also called Kauai home, and his residential complex at Kee remains intact, including his house site, heiau (place of worship), and hula altar; the date when this complex was built is not known. The road ends before reaching the site.

In precontact times, Wailua Nui Hoano, or Great Sacred Wailua, was the seat of power for Kauai. A series of heiauattest to its being one of the most sacred places in the island chain until this day. However, the first images of heiau transmitted to Europe were not of those mana-laden sites of the Wailua district, but rather those of Waimea, where British explorer Captain James Cook first landed in Hawaii in January 1778. With the coming of Western ships, Waimea, with its safe anchorage, supplanted Wailua as a primary residence for Kauai aliʻi. It was here that Georg Schaeffer attempted to establish a foothold for Russia, laying out and commencing construction of a star-shaped, European-style, lava-rock fort at the mouth of the Waimea River.

The Protestant missionaries also established their domain at Waimea, arriving in 1820 with twenty-two-year-old George, Humehume, Kaumualii, the son of Kauai's ruling chief. The young man had been raised in New England from the age of seven and, although not a devout Christian, had gained passage back to Hawaii with the missionaries on the brig Thaddeus. Preaching the word of God, the Whitney, Ruggles, Gulick, and Rowell families would all reside in Waimea, with some of them moving on to the greener fields of Koloa and Wailua, while the Alexander and Wilcox families spread the word to the Hanalei district.

The story of Ladd and Company reveals the changing character of Hawaiian society during the 1830s. Although not the first company or individual to attempt to produce sugar in Hawaii, it was the first to have some success. Supported by a missionary desire to provide Hawaiians with “gainful” employment, Kamehameha III was influenced in 1835 to grant Ladd and Company a fifty-year lease and water rights for about one thousand acres of land in Koloa for $300 per year. This written, binding lease for such a large landholding was unprecedented in Hawaii, as, previously, the monarchy only granted, in the vaguest of terms, the use of relatively small land parcels to foreigners. In addition to land and water rights, the lease exempted Hawaiians who worked for the plantation from paying taxes to their aliʻi, thus undermining the authority of the Hawaiian rulers by giving commoners a new means of livelihood and obligation. The plantation further transformed the Hawaiian barter-based, subsistence economy by printing its own money, the first currency to be produced in the kingdom. The Koloa dollars were exchanged for goods at the plantation store, but soon circulated beyond the store, remaining in use on Kauai until at least 1850. The plantation also provided worker housing, and addressed medical needs, thereby establishing the foundations of the paternalistic plantation system which spread throughout the Islands and endured for more than one hundred years.

Initially, twenty-five acres of sugar cane were cultivated at Koloa, and a dam was built to provide water power for turning a mill. Ladd and Company was sufficiently successful to allow the construction of a larger sugar mill in 1841, the stone stack of which still stands in the heart of Koloa town at the intersection of Maluhia and Koloa roads. However, unwise expansion led to Ladd and Company's bankruptcy by 1845, but Koloa Plantation survived under Dr. Robert W. Wood. With the plantation, Koloa became the center of commerce for Kauai, and its port, although far from perfect, became the most frequented on the island.

Other plantations followed. Lihue Plantation was established in 1849. Here missionary-turned-sugar-planter William Harrison Rice built a ten-mile-long ditch in 1857 to irrigate the cane fields, the first such endeavor to be associated with Hawaii's nascent sugar industry. Grove Farm Plantation was established between Lihue and Koloa plantations in 1854. However, it was not until the 1880s, following Hawaii's reciprocity treaty with the United States, that most of Kauai's modern communities emerged, as former ranchlands were converted to the more lucrative cultivation of sugar. Kapaa and Kilauea plantations appeared in 1877; Kekaha in 1880; Waimea in 1884; Eleele and Makaweli in 1889; and McBryde at Kalaheo in 1899.

Sugar dominated Kauai's and the Islands' economy for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Following the fortunes of sugar, Kauai's population grew during the first three decades of the twentieth century, stabilizing at just over 35,000 in 1930. However, mechanization reduced labor needs and, as a result of limited alternate economic opportunities, the island population declined to 28,000 by 1960. Tourism emerged as a viable economic factor with the advent of inter-island jet flights in the mid-1960s. While the Coco Palms (closed), one of the earliest hotels designed by George Wimberley, opened its doors in 1953, the Kauai Surf (1960, Frank S. Robert; demolished) on Kalapaki Beach at Nawiliwili marked the first major resort development on the island. The Poipu area began to develop as a resort destination in 1962, and was followed by Princeville in the 1970s.

Confronted with the specter of increasing hotel construction, the County of Kauai passed its “Palm Tree Ordinance” in 1972, which restricted building heights to approximately that of a palm tree, forty feet, in an effort to retain the island's rural character. Despite such measures, changes have continued to transpire and not always for the best. For example, Poipu's first significant hotel venture was the Waiohai Resort, a two-story, twenty-four-cottage hotel complex designed by Vladimir Ossipoff. These cottages were supplanted in 1981 by a four-story, 461-room building, the work of Arthur Y. Mori and Associates. This elegant, refreshingly open, modern hotel only came to be after the neighboring condominium owners and SHOK (Stop Highrises on Kauai) took the county to court, as the planning commission initially approved a proposed six-story building for the site, in apparent disregard of the forty-foot height limit. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki sufficiently decimated the Waiohai that it did not reopen. Recently it was transmogrified into a bulkily composed, stuccoed, time-share complex. Hopefully such changes remain the exception on the Garden Isle.

The majority of visitors arrive by airplane at Lihue Airport. From the county seat of Lihue, the Kaumualii and Kuhio highways access the southwest and northeast sides of the island, to form the island's belt highway. For ease of orientation, the building entries start at Waimea on the west side and travel counterclockwise around the island to Hanalei on the north shore.

Writing Credits

Don J. Hibbard

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