An iconic Big Island hotel stands tall again

September 23, 2013

Built by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1965 the Mauna Kea Beach Resort on the island of Hawaii was one of the first luxury hotels that lured tourists to the islands. The hotel is shown in a 2009 file photo.

Hawaii isnít known for its skyscrapers, though there are more than a few (Hyatt Regency Waikiki, ugh) in Honolulu and a smattering elsewhere in the islands.

So itís odd that one of the most sublime architectural creations in Hawaii is the work of master skyscraper designers who began work in Chicago and were best known for churning out "international style" towers in Manhattan.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had no reason to go to Hawaii except that a well-heeled client with the last name of Rockefeller asked them to come. The result was the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the iconic, tropical skyscraper on its side on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. Itís not hard to imagine what an impact it must have had when it opened in 1965 because it has been copied so many times ever since. The many knockoffs have left Hawaii with more than a few concrete blunders beside its beaches.

But none of that is the fault of the original. The genesis of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was in economic failure. The backbone of the west side Big Island economy, the sugar plantations, was fading by the time Hawaii became a state in 1959. But the introduction of jet travel had opened the possibility of tourism as a replacement. Gov. William Quinn invited Laurance S. Rockefeller, a scion of Americaís most famous wealthy family, to essentially pick his spot along the west coast for a hotel. Rockefeller saw Kaunaoa Beach and asked if he could go in for "a swim." From the water he picked it as the site of his new resort.

Rockefeller hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, previously known for urban business skyscrapers, to create a modern hotel that blended with the site. The firm created a concrete and glass hotel that has been copied many times but never matched. The steel and concrete allowed for open space where walls would normally block views. Interior designer Davis Allen came up with the bright orange, cream and off-green color scheme. Robert Trent Jones Sr. was brought in to design the golf course that would ensure that Rockefellerís friends and friends of friends would come to the previously bald spot on the flank of a volcano. Rockefeller installed large objects from his Asian art collection around the property, most famously a Buddha that is reached by ascending a long, modernist staircase.

The hotel was a hit when it opened in 1965, touted as one of the three best hotels in the world by Esquire magazine.

The Mauna Kea was the premier hotel on the island for many years until tourism began to catch up. The Mauna Lani, just to the north, opened with a design heavily borrowing from the Mauna Kea. The Four Seasons Hualalai became the top place. It seemed as if the Mauna Kea might fade away.

Then disaster struck. A major earthquake in 2006 was a turning point for the hotel. The supports for the building showed damage and there was talk of tearing it down. But its architectural standing and a solid core of longtime devotees encouraged the Japanese owners to spend $150 million to repair the damage and restore the hotel. The green light came before the world economy blew a gasket.

In the process, changes to the hotel and golf course that had happened over the years were stripped away. The result was that when the hotel reopened two years later, it was closer in feel to the original Mauna Kea than any time since Rockefellerís days. There were a few nods to modernity: Rockefeller had hated TV and banned them from the rooms ó he wanted his guests to get away from all their worries and responsibilities. Today, there is a flat-screen in every room.

It was a small gesture to keep the great skyscraper on its side above the sand to lure a new generation of guests who hopefully will fall in the love with the hotel and maintain its premier place on the Kohala side of the Big Island for decades to come.

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