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Lahaina: Endangered historic site?

By Staff | Feb 3, 2011

County signs in the Lahaina Historic Districts have been broken for years.

LAHAINA — This January, Lahaina was named to the 2011 list of most endangered historic sites in Hawaii by the statewide Historic Hawaii Foundation.

“We recognize that even when we think that a place is protected, it can still be at risk,” said Kiersten Faulkner, Historic Hawaii Foundation executive director.

“Hawaii is a place that cherishes its history and has adopted laws to help protect it, yet sometimes the system fails.”

On Maui, there are excellent systems to preserve and protect the historic qualities of Lahaina; and yes, these systems have failed.

Lahaina was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. It’s the highest rating a destination can obtain from the National Park Service. Locations with this rating are so designated because they provide exceptional value to the nation as a whole, in addition to their value to the local community.

Also, in 1962, in an extraordinary, pioneering effort, the County of Maui created the first Historic District in Lahaina and in 1969 added a second historic district to the town. Today, these districts run from 505 Front Street on the south to just past Hard Rock Cafe to the north, from the ocean to Luakini Street. The Historic Districts have a unique set of rules (Title 19, Article III) in the County Code that were created to protect the authenticity and historic value of Lahaina.

Lahaina has outstanding examples of historic preservation in the Baldwin Home, Masters Reading Room, Wo Hing Museum, Old Prison, Seaman’s Hospital, Hale Aloha and the Old Lahaina Courthouse. Most recently, the Pioneer Mill Company smokestack was restored.

One of the most important Hawaiian sites, Moku’ula, is located here in Lahaina. Significantly, Lahaina was the first capitol of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Today, Lahaina has more museums than any other town in the State of Hawaii except Honolulu.

So what is wrong?

“The threat (to Lahaina) is a long-term pattern of incompatible renovations and loss of historic fabric,” the Historic Hawaii Foundation noted.

“It is the cumulative effect of countless individual decisions that start to change the authentic sense of history and identity that characterize Lahaina.”

Multiple plastic banners are strung on walls, bright Caribbean paint colors adorn storefronts, and fiberglass “wood” signs hang above doorways. Historic small window panes disappear in favor of large plate glass.

The County of Maui, in defiance of its own laws, installs metal street signs with “puka poles” instead of the wooden posts and carved wood signs mandated for the Lahaina Historic Districts.

The community supported update of the Lahaina Design Guidelines has languished in draft form since 2003. A 40-page “Documentation of the Deterioration of County Signs in the Lahaina Historic Districts” was presented to the county in October 2005.

Unfortunately, six years later, many of these broken public street signs still line historic Front Street.

Individually, these are all “little things.” Yet cumulatively, over time, these “little things” are a real threat to Lahaina’s historic integrity, authenticity and cultural fabric.

For years, Lahaina Restoration Foundation has been publicly testifying about the lack of enforcement and the resulting deterioration of the Lahaina Historic Districts.

LRF welcomes Lahaina’s new “endangered historic places” designation, which will hopefully help Lahaina get the attention it needs to fix the problems that have been undermining the town for so long.

Lahaina Restoration Foundation welcomes input, suggestions and volunteers from the community, as the organization works to put Lahaina back on the very top of the list of most historic places in Hawaii.

E-mail Theo Morrison, executive director of Lahaina Restoration Foundation, at theo@lahainarestoration.org with your input and suggestions.