HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Architectural Gems of Hilo – The Art Deco Years


By Kelly Moran

Architectural Gems of Hilo – The Art Deco Years

In the years between the first and second World Wars, the architectural styles that were all the rage first came to public attention in a 1925 Paris exhibition of “arts decoratif et moderne” – decorative and modern arts. The term “Art Deco” was coined fifty years later, so it encompasses both the highly “decorative” style of the 1920s, that often features elaborate terra-cotta tile work; and the “modern” style of the 1930s, that has hardly any ornamentation at all, and seems almost to be “streamlined.”

Hilo has some wonderful examples of the former, and only a few of the latter; but if you’re a fan of Art Deco, they’re all worth a look.

Starting on the Bay front, on Kamehameha Ave., what is now a charter school and a multiplex-movie house still has its original “Kress” department store sign, and a busy frieze of blue-and white terra-cotta tiles.

A block away, at the corner of Kalakaua St. stands the Pacific Tsunami Museum, which was originally a Bank of Hawaii. Like many bank buildings, it’s in a “Greek Revival” style, with tall columns.

But the details – love those eagles! – are Art Deco all the way.

The Palace Theater, in the first block of Haili St., is a 1925 “picture palace” where, besides movies, theatrical and musical programs are now presented. It has a nicely tiled lobby (where its original projector is on display); and there’s a local preservation group, the Friends of the Palace Theater for the building’s ongoing restoration.

Around Kalakaua Park, several fine structures stand out. On Kalakaua St., the first building you come to was originally the front-office for the local telephone company,

and it has (I think) the most beautiful terra-cotta tile work in town.

Today, though, it serves only as an extension of the newer structure behind it, and it’s filled with telecommunication equipment; so no entry is permitted.

But you’ll want to go inside the building next door, which – though not as fancy – has the same basic form. The East Hawaii Cultural Center, at 141 Kalakaua St., is an art gallery on the main floor, and a performance venue upstairs for concerts, theater and dance. Walk up (there’s an elevator if you need it), and go out onto the second-floor lanai, which has nice vintage floor tiles, and a great view of the park. This charming building was originally Hilo’s central police station!

Along the makai side of the park stretches a lovely pergola and reflecting pool which is Hilo’s memorial to the fallen in war. Unlike pergolas that imitate European styles, however, this one is definitely moderne. 

And where the Park touches Waianuenue Ave., stands one of the three “streamlined” 1930s structures in town. The Carlsmith Building (a law office) has plain white sides, practically no ornamentation, and a hexagonal window overlooking the park.

Rare for this rainy climate, but consistent with the dictates of the moderne style, it has a flat roof.

The two other 1930s buildings in town are: the main fire station, at Kinoole and Ponahawai Sts. – though you’ll have to look hard to see the streamlining;

and the office building for the old Hilo Iron Works, where Kam Ave. crosses the Wailoa River.

Though only two stories high, it was obviously designed to look like a skyscraper (well, like the base of one, anyway). There’s not much of its original interior décor left, but it is open to the public, with an art gallery and small offices inside.

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