The Tiki Wars

How do we distinguish the historic from the sentimental?

Last June, I had dinner at the Kahiki Supper Club, in Columbus, Ohio. The food was memorable, although not necessarily in a good way. Some meals were served in carved pineapples; others crackled with eyebrow-singeing flames. (The Columbus Dispatch once wrote that "the Kahiki is one of the few restaurants in Columbus in which food can injure you.") From time to time a nearby table would order up a four-person flaming drink, which was delivered amid the sound of gongs by an exotic "mystery girl"—a ritual that, according to the menu, "symbolizes an ancient sacrifice, which reportedly stopped volcanoes from erupting."

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

I entered the Kahiki, said to be modeled after a New Guinea men's meetinghouse, between a pair of twenty-foot-high Easter Island idols with flames spouting from their heads. Inside, after crossing a low bridge and passing through a damp grotto, I wandered into a series of dining rooms filled with thatched "dining huts." The main room, a conical structure with a towering ceiling, was presided over by an eighty-foot-high tiki goddess with glowing red eyes and a fireplace for a mouth.

No surface was unmolested. In and around the dining huts were totems, carved masks, woven grass mats, parts of ersatz shipwrecks, lamps fashioned from seashells, fountains spewing luridly tinted water, adult beverages served in skull-shaped mugs, and an assortment of lavishly varnished blowfish. Localized "thunderstorms," complete with "lightning," passed through every twenty minutes or so, drenching the tract of rain forest outside my dining-hut window.

Built in 1961, the Kahiki wasn't the first tiki restaurant in the nation (that honor goes to Don the Beachcomber's, in Hollywood, which opened in 1934), but it may have been the most elaborate. Last June, The New York Times dubbed the Kahiki "the grandest and best-preserved of a nearly extinct form of culinary recreation." Otto von Stroheim, the publisher of Tiki News, a newsletter devoted to Polynesian pop, once called the Kahiki "the first or second most important tiki restaurant in the world." In 1997 the Kahiki joined the nearly 70,000 other properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "I don't like to do firsts and biggests and bests and lasts," Beth Savage, an architectural historian who evaluates properties for the register, told me. "But I can say with certainty that this is the only tiki listed."

I had gone to Columbus last summer because Walgreens, the drugstore chain, had recently announced its intention to build a 15,000-square-foot store on the property occupied by the Kahiki. This plan, of course, would require the demolition of the restaurant, a fact that did not go unnoticed locally. A grassroots group (it preferred the appellation "grass-skirt group") circulated an e-mail petition to save the Kahiki. The Dispatch was filled with passionate letters from heartbroken residents. The newspaper editorialized against the closing.

All to no avail. It's an honor to be listed on the National Register, but, as with the social register, inclusion suggests more power than it actually confers. On August 26 the Kahiki served its final meal and then locked its hexagonal front door for good. The building was demolished in November.

I realize that I'm hardly alone in saying I hate it when drugstore chains raze cool old buildings and replace them with boxy, harshly lit stores selling eyeliner and blister packs of batteries. But I found myself mustering a bit of sympathy for Walgreens in this fight. The Kahiki was, after all, a fake Polynesian restaurant that served mediocre, dangerous food and sat on an unlovely commercial strip at the frayed edge of the city. Its loss didn't really rank with the destruction of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece or a Civil War battlefield. Then I called Nathalie Wright, the National Register coordinator at the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. She was the person responsible for nominating the Kahiki for the National Register, and when I asked her what the big deal was, she made an articulate case.

Placed in its socio-historical context, Wright argued, the Kahiki vividly recalled a time when America inhabited a sort of South Seas Camelot. Songs from the movie musical South Pacific (1958) were on everyone's lips, Hawaii had joined the union as the fiftieth state just two years before (1959), and Elvis was starring in Blue Hawaii (1961). If historic buildings serve as cairns that mark our path as we march resolutely forward through time, we should preserve places like the Kahiki in the event we ever want to go back.

Furthermore, Wright said, tiki bars were among the original theme restaurants, dating from a time when Americans began to evince an apparently lasting appetite for the artificial over the real. And with Mount Vernon, for example, now sharing space on the National Register with the likes of the Kahiki, it becomes harder for American families to distinguish the genuine from its simulacrum. On a wall near the Kahiki's men's room I found a 1995 article from Fortune in which Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, who went to college nearby, revealed that he had attended his first drive-in movie in Columbus and enjoyed meals at the Kahiki. If there's a better contemporary version of "George Washington slept here," I don't know it.

That we're now trying to save the very places we once derided is nothing new. Queen Anne-style houses and Craftsman-style bungalows followed similar tracks: they were icons of an era which fell out of fashion and were subject to ridicule and large-scale demolition before being "discovered," dusted off, and placed on pedestals. "I call this the grandmother principle," the architect Robert Venturi has said. "You hate your mother's wedding gown in your parents' wedding photograph, but you love your grandmother's wedding gown in your grandparents' wedding photograph."

Venturi made this observation last October in Philadelphia, at a conference titled "Preserving the Recent Past." The gathering, of some 850 preservationists, engineers, and architects, was largely given over to arcane technical matters—for example, how to maintain glass-curtain walls and acoustic-tile ceilings. But a more philosophical question was on everyone's mind: How do we preserve the past when faced with accelerating cycles of building and demolition? Today we destroy buildings before they've ripened. We don't allow ourselves the luxury of waiting to evaluate their historical importance. If we are to preserve the best, we need somehow to flag our landmarks for exemption from this hasty winnowing.

This is a complicated matter. Not only is it a daunting task to persuade the members of the public that buildings constructed in their lifetime are historic and worth saving, but also it requires that we sort the truly historic from the merely nostalgic.

"There's a real danger that sentiment can overtake rationality, and preservationists can be made to look ridiculous if we're not careful," says David De Long, a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. "All of us have a sentimental attachment to these things. One of the great responsibilities of those of us in preservation is to edit. It's a big responsibility. The easiest way to avoid it is to be against any destruction."

But what to save? Early strip malls? Subdivisions filled with tract homes? Drive-in theaters? White Castle hamburger stands? (One paper presented in Philadelphia was titled "The Ubiquitous Parking Garage: Worthy of Preservation?") After all, these are icons of the twentieth century, much as canals and carriage houses and Richardsonian Romanesque train depots are icons of the nineteenth. Isn't it important to preserve the best architectural examples of our era for our grandchildren? How do we decide which are the best?

Before the wrecking ball came in, the Kahiki's owners removed much of the interior and put it in storage. Plans call for the restaurant to reopen within two years, in a better location downtown, with the original interior. That's the good news. The bad news is that the new Kahiki certainly won't have the comfortable and dusky patina of the original place. (And it will lose its National Register listing.) It's easy to imagine the Kahiki reborn as just another "eatertainment" venue—a Rainforest Cafe with varnished blowfish.

Of course, its resurrection will also raise the question of whether the new Kahiki should one day be preserved as an example of the pervasive influence of retro kitsch on American culture. This, I'm happy to say, will be up to the next generation to decide.