Edifice Complex

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I’m just back from visiting my son Carl and his family in Honolulu. On my first trip to see them after they moved there a few years ago, I arrived mentally prepared for days of sand, sun and sea. I had hardly hung my welcoming leis at the window than Carl came into my room with the essentials for my stay. No sunscreen, no beach towel, not even a pail and shovel did he bring; instead he brought a history of Hawai’i, a Hawaiian dictionary and a book of local architectural treasures. I soon added a bird book and a tree book, and my library was complete. Every trip away from the house included at least one of those books.

On our drives through Honolulu, the architecture book was always on hand, and I was able to see many of the buildings it showed. One that caught my eye was a little church nestled into its landscape, looking both inviting and quaint. (I am partial to churches, and, remembering a favorite song, I imagined that it was what The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood might have looked like. I only just learned that the inspiration for that song is in Nashua, Iowa.) This one, though, was the First Church of Christ, Scientist. On several return visits, I’ve passed it and admired it, but never got out of the car to get close to it. Finally, last Sunday, I attended the service. The outside, I had read, was built of lava rock that had been quarried and shaped into circular forms on the site. Thick stripes of the rock alternate with two inch-bands of gray mortar, giving the building a pleasant pattern of horizontal stripes all the way up to its steeply hipped roof.

The church’s architect, Hart Wood, born in Philadelphia, arrived in Honolulu during the Golden Age of Hawaiian architecture, the Territorial Period (1893-1941). Wood had begun his career in Denver, and moved west to the Bay Area, where he worked on the drawings for Stanford University’s Richardsonian Romanesque buildings and was introduced to the landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmstead. Following the San Francisco earthquake and fire, he worked at the firm of Bliss and Faville where the trend was toward the Neoclassical and Beaux Arts styles. Bliss and Faville was one of five San Francisco firms to work on the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and Wood contributed substantially to its Great Wall and landscape design as well as collaborating with John McLaren, the horticulturist who designed Golden Gate Park, to construct a high fence frame covered with ice plants that was used at the exposition’s entrance.

Across the Bay in Oakland, Wood met architect Charles William Dickey, and formed a partnership with him. Dickey, the grandson of missionary William P. Alexander who had arrived in the Islands in 1832, had spent much of his childhood on Maui. He had a number of Hawaiian clients, and the two decided to move to Hawai’i, arriving in 1919 during an economic boom.

Wood and Dickey are now regarded as the consummate practitioners of the Hawaiian style in Territorial Period architecture. Inspiration for Hawaiian buildings at that time came from the Mediterranean and Mission Revival styles. Mission Revival was one of the names used during the Arts and Crafts Period to describe buildings and their furnishings that were influenced by the architecture of the Southwestern United States. Architect Bertram Goodhue’s designs for San Diego’s 1915 Panama California Exposition, of which Mingei International’s Balboa Park location is one, were especially influential at the time.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist is an outstanding example of Hawaiian Gothic architecture. The church’s spacious interior relies on its architecture for decoration. It features a high, hipped ceiling, supported by beams tied with iron bands in imitation of the traditional coconut fiber bands used to bind together the beams that support the steep roofs of indigenous structures. There are no stained glass windows, but a lanai on the makai (ocean) side of the auditorium and an identical space on the mauka (mountain) side, with floor-to-ceiling windows, provide both cross-ventilation and views of the lovely grounds. A large alcove at the front, framed by a stylized Gothic arch like the lotus petal that is sometimes a backdrop for an image of the Buddha, forms the proscenium for a podium from which the services are conducted. Behind the lectern is a screen that hides the organ pipes. It looks from a distance like a lacey, Indian, carved marble jali. I was told that this one is wood, that the finish is faux marbre and that it was patterned after an altar screen in a church in Germany. (I have also read that it was patterned after a church in Italy.) Either way, it’s exquisite. The Cross and Crown motif is at the center surrounded by alternating squares of four different patterns of Xs and diamonds, somewhat reminiscent of a quilt.

The building, set among trees and surrounded by spacious gardens and lawn, was opened in 1923. According to my knowledgeable informants from the congregation, the trees preceded the church. Thus, when the land was purchased, it was stipulated that all the trees should remain, and the building was designed around and among the trees. In fact, at the back corner, there is a little jog that keeps the roof from running into one of these venerable trees. Next to the front door is a tamarind tree, while karaka and monkey pod trees shade the rest of the area.

By the way, Wood taught Sunday School at this church, and if I’d been there on another Sunday, I could have met one of his pupils.

Another church designed by Wood, the First Chinese Church of Christ, combines Chinese and Christian motifs with a pagoda-like bell tower, and a front door framed in the Chinese style. Over the front door is an ideogram that proclaims that it is “The Chinese Christian Church.” Like the Christian Science Church, it is set on spacious grounds and has a lanai. It too has a high hipped roof.

Wood also designed the Alexander and Baldwin Building (with Dickey), the Gump Building in Downtown Honolulu as well as private residences, a Community Center, plantation housing and administration buildings and pumping stations and other buildings for the Water Department.

Another highlight of the trip was a second visit to Doris Duke’s wonderful, Islamic art-filled Shangri-La. Designed by Florida architect Marion Sims Wyeth, it’s another instance of using what nature has made available to provide comfort and beauty with its interior Persian courtyard, high ceilings and easily opened windows, the most interesting of which is a glass wall that looks at Diamond Head and the ocean from the living room. It can be opened all the way using a mechanism created by the Otis Elevator Company to lower it to the floor below. Tours of Shangri-La are operated by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, a remarkable institution, and one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Like Mingei International’s building, the House of Charm, it was designed by Bertram Goodhue. No wonder I feel so at home there.

Image Notes:

The Chinese Courtyard in the Honolulu Academy of Arts

Front Door
Entrance to First Church of Christ, Scientist, Honolulu

Mauka Side
Side view of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Honolulu

The Cutout
The notch in the roof allows the tree to grow as it will

The last three are from Wikipedia Commons and are in the public domain:
Honolulu First Chinese Church
Gump Building