Located on the south shore of Oahu, the adjacent neighborhoods of Downtown and Chinatown are a relaxed 15-minute drive from the iconic Waikiki beach. These neighborhoods have a combined distance of 10 blocks, divided almost in half by Bethel Street. Originally a seaport headed by Aloha Tower, the Downtown area now features concrete and glass skyscrapers in an international architecture style with clean lines and vast openness. A dense network of government agencies and corporate businesses occupy these buildings creating a business district culture not seen elsewhere in the islands. The residential option in Downtown is high-rise apartments dispersed throughout the area. In contrast, Chinatown is a mix of turn-of-the-century architecture with pagoda-roofed and red awning-lined commercial spaces stacked under residential housing. Much of the Chinatown seen today was rebuilt after a massive fire in 1900 with some of the original vendors still selling leis and produce during the day and opening late-night galleries and bars for the evening crowd. With the recent increase in gentrification, the new boutique and restaurant tenants have begun highlighting the red-brick construction, exposing the underlying concrete floors, and opening up the floor plans to allow in more natural light. If you are looking to explore Downtown and Chinatown in Honolulu, I suggest heading to these architecturally iconic spots:
Alexander & Baldwin Building
Built in 1929 on the ocean end of Bishop Street, the Alexander & Baldwin Building was designed as the headquarters for the Hawai`i’s Big Five Corporation. In the style of Hawaiian Regionalism, the four-story building was constructed of steel framing and concrete casings with the renowned superior craftsmanship noticeable in the projecting balcony, exposed rafters, and tiled murals.
Now a museum regarded as a National Historic Landmark, `Iolani Palace was commissioned in the late 19th century to be a residence for the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawai`i. Rebuilt many times, the structure seen today was constructed with inspiration from European monarch palaces and defined by American Flourentine renaissance architecture (the only building of this style known to exist). The Palace is fashioned with grand koa wood staircases, corner towers, and lanais on the first and second floors.
Hawai`i State Capitol Building
Completed in 1969, the Hawai`i State Capitol Building was designed with an aesthetic of Hawaiian symbolism: outside of the building are towering concrete pillars extending from their reflections in the surrounding water imitating the royal palm trees and the Pacific Ocean. On each end of the building stands a grand volcanic form housing the legislative chambers with each room containing a chandelier fashioned from nautilus shells to represent the moon.
Hawai`i Theatre Center
The largest neon marquee built in Honolulu boasts the words “Hawaii” above the entrance to the Hawai`i Theatre Center in the Chinatown Art District. The historic Vaudeville theatre and cinema was constructed in 1922 with the exterior crafted in Neoclassical architecture. The interior pulled inspirations of Beaux-Arts as seen in the beautiful gilded domed ceiling, marble statues, and silk wall hangings.
The Perry Block Building
As one of the few buildings to survive the Chinatown fire, the Perry Block Building construction dates back to 1889. Located in the Chinatown Historic District, this building was fashioned from brick and blends Neo-Greco and Renaissance Revival styles. The uniqueness of this building is in the details. The keystones of the windows feature a design derived from the Portuguese coat of arms and the front sidewalk is covered with stone pavers used as ballasts on ships from China to Hawai`i.
Header image of Chinatown courtesy of boaski on Flickr.