You are here


-A A +A

Oahu, the state's third-largest island, is 597.1 square miles in area, comprises 9 percent of the state's land, and holds more than 72 percent of its population, 876,156 in 2000. The city and county of Honolulu encompass the entire island, making it the twelfth-largest city in the United States in terms of population. Honolulu also lays claim to being the longest city in the world, as the small uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian islands are under its jurisdiction, stretching its borders more than one thousand miles across the Pacific. The island was formed by two volcanic episodes, resulting in the formation of the Waianae (2.2 million years ago) and the Koolau (1.3 million years ago) mountain ranges. Lying perpendicular to the trade winds, the mountains produce the wet windward and dry leeward climatic areas. Development is concentrated along the coast and on the high plain that links the two mountain ranges.

For much of the past two millennia, Oahu was a kingdom unto itself, with Waikiki serving as the island's seat of power from at least the sixteenth until the early nineteenth centuries. Following Kahekili's (c. 1783) and then Kamehameha I's (1795) conquests of Oahu, Waikiki remained the royal center, but activity gradually shifted away from this sun-drenched crescent of sand to Honolulu, whose sheltered, near shore, deep waters offered foreign ships safe haven. Initially, sailors were not aware of the natural harbor, as Captain Charles Clerke, the first Westerner known to land on Oahu, arrived at Waimea Bay on the island's north shore in February 1779 en route to Kauai after Captain James Cook's death at Kealakekua Bay. It was not until 1792 or 1793 that British merchant captain William Brown discovered the narrow passage through the reef that accessed Honolulu's anchorage. Knowledge of the harbor and its capacity to hold approximately one hundred ships quickly spread among seafarers plying the Pacific, and their preference for this area led Hawaiians to gravitate here as well. Missionaries, as well as merchants and whalers, made Honolulu their base of operations, and the town was designated the kingdom's permanent capital in 1845. Five years later, it was formally organized as a city, with a population of approximately 14,500. In 1809, American seaman Archibald Campbell described Honolulu as a village of several hundred thatched buildings. Nothing aboveground remains of the thatched village known to Campbell and others, though it was recorded in several scenes drawn by Louis Choris, an artist who visited in 1816 on the Russian ship Rurick.Visitors were not impressed by the metropolis. Yale University scientist Chester Lyman declared in 1846, “The town as to its external appearance is not inviting; the sharp thatched roofs of the houses gives it from the sea the aspect of a plain filled with stacks of hay, & on entering it the walls of adobes by which the streets are lined & the houses shut in give it a monotonous & uninteresting appearance.” Development of the Nuuanu waterworks in 1852 provided the city with water, turning a “dusty, arid plain” into a bower of tropical plantings, according to the Reverend Henry T. Cheever. In turn, the so-called stacks of hay were supplanted by Western architectural forms.

As the capital of the kingdom, Honolulu developed more intensely than other parts of the island chain, a trend which has continued to the present day, although reminders of the past remain. Consequently, the urban core of Honolulu presents an engaging mix of architectural forms ranging from pre-1842 missionary buildings to modern high-rise offices. The city boasts two of the nation's earliest concrete-block buildings: the Kamehameha V Post Office (OA23) and Aliiolani Hale (OA54), as well as a royal palace (OA51). Buildings recalling the Asian heritages of much of the population are scattered throughout the city, but the overwhelming majority of structures at first glance remind visitors of buildings found throughout the United States. However, a second look often reveals adaptations to address Hawaii's climate and cosmopolitan culture. Bertram Goodhue and Associates' Honolulu Academy of Arts (OA91), C. W. Dickey's Halekulani Hotel (OA133), Hart Wood's First Chinese Church of Christ (OA95), and Julia Morgan's YWCA (OA48) superbly reflect various aspects of the regionalist spirit of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and such buildings as the Board of Water Supply's administration building (OA67) and the Outrigger Canoe Club (OA152) convey regionalist messages within a modern vocabulary. Works by such recent out-of-state architects as I. M. Pei (OA122.5), Minoru Yamasaki (OA15), John Carl Warnecke (OA46), Ellerbe Becket (OA129), Edward Killingsworth (OA157), and Kohn Pedersen Fox (OA32) contribute another layer to the city's architectural sophistication.

Outside the urban core, both sugar and pineapple thrived from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s. Ewa Plantation (OA173) is one of the most intact and best examples in the state of a sugar plantation community of the 1920s–1930s. Other major sugar centers such as those at Aiea, Waipahu, Waianae, Waialua, Waimanalo, and Kahuku have undergone numerous changes with the closing of the various mills and plantations. Pineapple received its start in the Islands at Wahiawa thanks to the experiments of James B. Dole. With the recent termination of pineapple cultivation on Oahu, the future of the plantation town of Kunia remains a question mark as suburban sprawl continues outward on the leeward and central plains.

Although no longer the seat of political power, Waikiki remains an economic engine, accommodating slightly over 50 percent of the state's visitors. Regulated by the Land Use Ordinance of 1974 and subsequent amendments, most notably those of 1996, the district continues to update its face and enchant visitors. In 2006, Trump Tower in Waikiki set world real estate records for total dollars and number of units changing hands at a residential development in a single day when all of the proposed building's 464 units sold out in eight hours, netting over seven hundred million dollars in presales. One wonders how much more it would have garnered if it sat on a beachfront lot.

The building entries for Oahu begin at Honolulu, then follow the coast on a counterclockwise course to Haleiwa. The route then turns inland along HI 99 to the south of the island, concluding just west of Honolulu.

Writing Credits

Don J. Hibbard

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.