One of Waikiki’s most iconic landmarks celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Here’s the story of how this hotel/condo hybrid came to be.
A. KAM NAPIER
It may be hard to believe now, but when the Ilikai opened in 1964, people thought it was gargantuan. “A monster mass of concrete and glass,” said this magazine’s predecessor, Paradise of the Pacific. “Its enormous bulk would send into shock the most phlegmatic citizen newly arrived in Honolulu with deep-etched Hawaiian conceptions of a little grass shack in Kealakekua.”
The magazine meant that as a compliment, devoting a chunk of its December 1964 issue to celebrating the Ilikai for its modernity, for being, when it “emerged sky-high in February of 1964,” the largest condominium project in the world. “The Ilikai is big, brash, and full of muscle. It is Chicago, it is Manhattan, it is new Pittsburgh … it is part of a new Hawaiian boldness that has been sharply criticized, but is simply too full of vigor to suppress. It suggests no impression of languid uke strummings. That is for other hotels, perhaps on other islands.”
Paradise attempted to dub the building “The Big I”—a nickname that, happily, did not stick.
What did stick was the Ilikai’s sheer presence, which would be aided in no small part by its weekly appearance in the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0 from 1968 to 1980, cementing it as the definitive hotel of Waikiki’s postwar era, modernism’s answer to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It is now one of the most legendary, recognizable buildings in the 50th state.
VIPs lived there. Celebrities stayed there, performed there. Hawaiian musical acts, restaurants and nightclubs made the Ilikai one of the most genuinely local corners of Waikiki.
And yet, the Ilikai almost didn’t happen. It was certainly never meant to be a hotel, not at first. It took the investment smarts of legendary developer and stockbroker Chinn Ho to pull it off, and even he didn’t have a guaranteed hit on his hands.
April 1963 found Chinn Ho on the cover of Hawaii Business and Industry magazine, in suit and bow tie, holding his signature cigar and sitting in a boat at sea, with Makaha right behind him, where he was attempting to develop a resort project. “His daring land ventures have made him a millionaire and won the respect of the business community,” the magazine declared.
By then, Ho was the ultimate postwar local success story, a rags-to-riches tale often repeated: how his grandfather had moved to Hawaii in a 65-day journey in 1875, to become a rice farmer; how his father, Ho Ti Yuen, clerked by day at the Pacific Club—at a time when Asians were not accepted as members—then attended Iolani School at night to gain the skills needed to open an import-export business; how Chinn Ho himself, born in 1904, one of nine children, formed his first investment group with friends while still a McKinley High School student.
That group, Commercial Associates, started out funding school dances before dabbling in the more grown-up world of real estate and life insurance. After high school, Ho worked day jobs at Bishop Bank, then with Honolulu stockbrokers Duesenberg-Wichman, just before Dean Witter purchased that firm. He stayed with Dean Witter until 1944 when he went out on his own, forming the Capital Investment Co. and enjoying his first major success with former sugar lands in Waianae in 1946.
Ho seemed to have the Midas touch. He bought and refurbished the Queen’s Surf for $2.70 per square foot, for example, only to score big when the city condemned the property—and paid him $12 per square foot for it.
By the time the Ilikai opened, Ho was the owner and publisher of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and was described by Paradise as “president of five companies, vice president of four, and director of three … one of the most dynamic figures ever to sprout from the fertile greening soil of Hawaii … [H]e is also responsible for bringing minor league baseball back to Honolulu. While the stock market is his basic business, he is interested in a hotel in Hong Kong, a resort in Bora Bora, and the personal financial well-being of an uncounted number of Oriental widows who are said to trust their savings to him.”
The Ilikai, in concept, had already been underway when Ho signed on in 1959. Promoters Guy Harrison and John Driver had optioned a Dillingham property made of landfill where the Ilikai now stands. Using pretty renderings in brochures and full-page ads—but no actual blueprints—they had been attempting to sell the Ilikai as a co-op apartment building. Not successfully, it turned out. They claimed to have sold 800 units, but, really, most of those “sales” were just $100 deposits.
What Ho acquired when the troubled project became available was the land; he was no under no obligation to continue developing the Ilikai. But he saw potential and pressed ahead in early 1961, with real blueprints from architect John Graham & Co., new financing and a new sales campaign.
However, the Ilikai as a co-op apartment building didn’t sell much better for Ho, either. The project was part of what a fretful December 1962 cover story of Hawaii Business and Industry described as a “rash of construction” in Waikiki, an “untimely boom” created artificially by a city ordinance that set height limits for Waikiki and sought to limit overcrowding. The ordinance, at least temporarily, had the opposite effect, as developers rushed to get their projects before the limits set it. (An aerial photo of this overdeveloped Waikiki on the cover now looks astonishingly … undeveloped.)
After moving 300 units out of more than 1,000 at a crawl in this environment, Ho shifted gears and converted the project into a half-and-half condo-hotel. This would mean a complicated system of management to have 1) owner-occupants, 2) owners who rented out their units, 3) owners who put their units into the hotel room market and 4) a hotel operator running half the building. Complicated, but the best way for everyone, from Ho to individual investment buyers, to realize a profit from the building.
So, a hotel it would be, and a fairly luxurious one at that, since the rooms to be rented were as spacious as the apartments they had been designed as, many with full kitchens. To run the hotel operation, Ho brought in Howard Donnelly, then the general manager of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, for his experience with upscale properties.
Elements we now think of as essential to the Ilikai’s identity—the glass elevator, the rooftop restaurant—were added to market the Ilikai as a hotel. And all on the fly. “With construction nearing the half-way point, the engineering changes are rapidly being cranked into the plans to accommodate the new look of the Ilikai,” wrote HB&I.
If that cameo in the Five-0 opening credits helped create the Ilikai’s reputation, it’s worth noting that the place had been open for four years by the time KGMB’s helicopter pilot Capt. Irwin Malzman flew into headwinds to capture Jack Lord standing on a penthouse lanai. The Ilikai made the credits because it was cool and happening from day one.* Local power brokers moved in immediately, such as U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and his wife and infant son, as did Edwin B. Benner Jr., president of Bishop Trust Co. While Boeing jets fueled Waikiki’s explosive growth, William Boeing Jr., son of the company’s founder, snapped up an Ilikai apartment as a part-time retreat.
The Ilikai, in its early years, sounds like the most glamorous time and place in Waikiki’s postwar era. Bobbie Kane, the Ilikai’s public relations director from 1965 to 1971, remembers every detail with precision and fondness, not least because she met her husband through the job. Alex Kane was a dashing Royal Air Force World War II veteran from New Zealand she had been assigned to look after. “I chased him for eight years before he finally caught me!” she jokes, patting his arm. We caught up with Bobbie and Alex at the Ilikai Bar & Grill on a recent Saturday.
General manager Donnelly ran a tight ship, with the 13 or 14 hotel department heads required to start each day with a staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. sharp, “no matter what you’d done the night before, even the bar managers who’d worked the late shift had to be there.” Other key staffers were Donnelly’s secretary, Nina Kealiiwahamana, the “singing spokesperson,” who organized the hotel’s entertainment, and Auntie Napua Stevens, who set the tone for service and deportment.
In those heady days, the Five-0 crew brought an air of urgent TV production to the property while Hollywood films such as Tora, Tora, Tora brought a parade of stars to the hotel.
Some guests were literally out-of-this-world stars—the crew of Apollo 13, commanded by Jim Lovell, which narrowly survived the explosion of an oxygen tank. They never made it to the moon, but, against the odds, made it home, splashing down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970. President Richard Nixon flew the crew’s wives to Hawaii, where they were reunited with their husbands at the Ilikai. “I remember the astronauts walking around in their white jumpsuits and white socks,” Kane recalls. “We took Lovell and his wife to dinner at the Dynasty.”
Then there were the shows in the Pacific Ballroom. “Five or six hundred people would attend to see Jack Benny, Jim Nabors, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones.” Add to that the local stars—Emma Veary played the Canoe House, for example—and you had a place where something was always happening. Kane speaks highly of Honolulu’s three-dot demigods, Eddie Sherman, Dave Donnelly, Ben Wood and Wayne Harada, who peppered their columns with Ilikai moments. “They were always very good to us.”
Says Harada now, “The Pacific Ballroom was one of the key cabaret show spots to see a hot name. Like Vikki Carr, when her ‘It Must Be Him’ peaked at No. 1 in 1967, and she was here to share the aloha from her Island fans.”
In addition to Veary, the Canoe House also hosted local legends such as Loyal Garner, “Lady Love at her best,” he says, and, later, Andy Bumatai, adding that it’s hard to believe that storied venue has been turned into a chapel.
The dining scene was a huge part of the Ilikai’s appeal. “Pier 7, a 24-hour coffeehouse restaurant for after-show, after-movie, after-shopping grinds. Or breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. But after hours was the time you’d see all the entertainers after their last shows.” At the Hong Kong Junk, Harada saw a musical act, the Fabulous Echoes, perform for the first time—they would go on to become Society of Seven, which performed until their Outrigger showroom closed in November.
At The Top of the I, that hat the Ilikai donned to dress up as a hotel, Harada saw The King himself, Elvis Presley, “stroll in one night with a party of 18.” (In fact, according to an account in The Daily Mail, Presley and singer Tom Jones struck up a lifelong friendship at the Ilikai when they met there in 1965.)
Local people flocked there for all this. For tourists, Harada recalls, there would be Hawaiian shows in the open courtyard between the lobby and the pool.
One can find some of this in today’s Ilikai. In fact, one employee in particular has been keeping a Hawaiian feel alive at the Ilikai every night for the past 50 years. Richard Bell, long retired from his day job with the Gas Co., drives in from Hawaii Kai, dons a red malo, lights the torches on the property and blows the same conch shell he’s been blowing for decades to welcome the night.
He’s an accidental torch lighter, it turns out. His wife, Alma Kanani, was a hula dancer at the Royal’s Monarch Room. Bell would go to pick her up after her show, hanging out with the other waiting boyfriends and husbands, when entertainer Haunani Kahalewai drafted some of the men into a big Christmas show. “It was $25 a week,” he recalls. That led to a luau gig in 1960.
“Auntie told me, ‘You better get a conch shell!’” he says, laughing. (His is from, of all places, Disneyland, where he bought it for $32.) When the Ilikai opened, relatives of his worked in entertainment and brought him aboard. He was about 26.
“It isn’t hard to learn,” he says of the conch shell. His sunset performance is a ritual of his own devising, not too long, on purpose. “There’s such a thing as too much conch shell!” he says.
Crowds gather to watch him, snap photos. People who took his picture on their honeymoon take pictures of him with their grandkids. Sometimes they share the old photos with him, “when they were young, and I was young.” (If you’d like to look as good as Bell at 76, know that he paddles three times a week.)
He seems more amused than mournful about the passing of time. That’s the best way to be, since things do change.
The Pacific Ballroom is long gone. In the 1980s, the Ilikai seemed to lose some shine, when three clubs, like The Power Station and the Playboy Club, would let out at 2 a.m. and patrons would get into fights.
Two buildings Chinn Ho added later to the Ilikai remain physically attached, but spiritually sundered. The Marina Tower still boasts The Chart House Restaurant on the ground floor (born in 1969, Chart House claims to be “the longest running, singly owned-and-operated restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii”), though a Red Lobster and an Outback Steakhouse occupy the space that was once the Royal Marina Twin movie theaters.
Chinn Ho sold the Ilikai in 1974 to Marriott International, the first of several ownership changes, and passed away in 1987. Over the years, the Ilikai started to show its age. Troll through TripAdvisor or other online travel reviews and you’ll find visitors still raving about the views but complaining that the aging units were rundown or shabby.
And there have been other bumps in the road in recent years. Brian Anderson, through his Anekona Development Group, acquired 343 hotel rooms in the Ilikai and another 360 in the adjoining Yacht Harbor Tower for $218 million in 2006. He sold the latter—the Yacht Harbor Tower is now The Modern, where Morimoto Waikiki serves up piscine minimalism and bartenders craft cocktails at the pool bar.
By August 2009, lender iStar Financial foreclosed on Anekona and it seemed the hotel would close for good. It hasn’t; the hotel portion is now managed by Honolulu-based Aqua Hotels & Resorts and soldiers on, though last July union members of Unite Here Local 5 protested over the steady loss of hotel work at the Ilikai over the years, down to 63 from a high of 750.
The current owner, iStar, is now remodeling three floors of hotel rooms to high-end units. “The hotel rooms are currently going through extensive renovation throughout 2014,” says Ilikai hotel manager Terry Dowsett. “The interior designer is Philpotts and Associates who utilized a design theme recognizing the iconic ’60s in the hotel’s early years, blended with a modern appeal.” Having seen one of the model units, it’s true—the prevailing luxury aesthetic of retro modernism, all straight lines and natural materials, feel right at home here.
Some condo owners in the Ilikai are less than pleased with this. In March 2013, they filed a lawsuit alleging that a vote to approve this renovation plan was improper and aspects of that challenge are still pending at this writing. One of their concerns? “It is believed that iStar will market its units as stand-alone condominiums, rather than as a unified hotel operation,” explains their attorney, Gregory W. Kugle.
If so, the Ilikai may finally become, after 50 years, what two sets of developers tried and failed to sell in the beginning—an apartment building.
Still, the Ilikai remains the Ilikai. It even appears in the opening credits of the new Five-0, though in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frenetic edit.
Go on a Friday night to the Ilikai Bar & Grill, take in Bell’s torch-lighting ceremony and live music performed by Kawika Trask and Friends. Get a Hawaiian plate. What the heck, order a tropical drink with an umbrella in it.
At 7:45 p.m., the Hilton’s fireworks show will go off like an air raid. A couple of hundred people fill the courtyard for it, eyes skyward. When the show ends, the crowd cheers, takes seats and the Hawaiian music starts up again.
Hey, I’m down for another 50 years of that. How about you?
Happy birthday, Ilikai.