The Improbable Persistence of Swimming Pools Built in the Ocean

“Duke in the water—flashing through the water—Duke a flaying, kicking object just below the surface—the water seeming to move—not he—water curling in foam from his beating palms. The same old Duke—the same, easy, slithering stroke, no effort—no panting breath—just perfect swimming. The crowd bellows and cheers and shrieks as the swimmer rises dripping from the pool.”

That year, 1927, was something of a turning point in modern Honolulu history. It was then, too, that the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened, a moment that signaled the tourism economy that would emerge—first by steam, then by air—in the coming decades. For those who treasure an older Hawaii—when it was not a state, not a territory, but a kingdom—the development boom of the 1920s and later the 1960s represents the loss of what the islands used to be. Preservation, remember, is all about context. Saving one thing means choosing not to save another. 

Waikiki Natatorium, 1930s (Screenshot from eBay)

By the 1930s, the Natatorium already needed renovations, and officials argued over which agencies should be responsible for upkeep. A decade later, World War II changed everything. Early-morning swimmers who may have been at the Natatorium on Sunday, December 7, 1941, would have been able to see the red dots on the wings of Japanese airplanes that flew low overheard en route to Pearl Harbor. Soon after, the U.S. Army took control of the pool, using it for training.

Waikiki Natatorium, 1942 (Screenshot from eBay)

In the post-war years, the Natatorium was used by injured veterans for rehabilitation and by colleges for swim meets. Even after a costly post-war renovation, by the 1960s, the infrastructure was badly crumbling. And in 1979, amid concerns about safety, the pool closed indefinitely. It has been shuttered for 35 long years. The pool's perimeter is now boarded up, so the best way for most people to get a complete look is from above. (Engineers and others have been permitted access from time to time over the years.)

Google Earth

Those who grew up swimming at the Natatorium are growing old themselves. Many of those who long supported saving the pool have died. And so: stories of the old Natatorium are disappearing. And yet the architecture itself contributes to a narrative that is otherwise unavailable. It is a steady, hulking memory of the past that lives with us in the present. In the shadow of the volcano Diamond Head on one side, the Natatorium feels puny and new. But looking the other way, toward the modern hotels that crawl up the coast, the old memorial is like an anchor that keeps a piece of the past from being swept out to sea. In unveiling a new project about learning history through buildings, my editor Alexis Madrigal put it this way: "Buildings endure. They are the will of people made manifest, sublimely. And when we look up at them, we can imagine, concretely, where our ancestors walked..." and, in this case, where they swam. 

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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