Dozens of granite pavers from 19th century Hawaii are now in a Nanakuli landfill.

In a quick day’s work, a contractor hired by the city on Tuesday ripped out historic ballast stones dating back to the mid-19th century that made up the sidewalk in front of Lai Fong Department Store in Chinatown.

Workers pulverized the historic stones from the days of the Hawaiian Kings’ sandalwood trade and hauled the rubble off to a Nanakuli landfill. After the removal of the historic pavers and lava rock curbstones, the hole left on the sidewalk was filled with concrete.

The granite stones that paved the sidewalk in front of Lai Fong are from Hawaii’s 19th century shipping trade. Old-time shippers filled their ships hulls with the granite ballast stones for stabilization after they had dropped off their cargo and were returning to their port empty. 

When the ballast blocks were no longer needed, they sat on Honolulu docks until someone decided they would make good sidewalk pavers.

“I am embarrassed that this even happened. It is very unfortunate,” Honolulu Managing Director Mike Formby told Civil Beat in a phone call on Thursday. 

Formby said the sidewalk in front of Lai Fong was demolished without the legally required State Historic Preservation Division review because of a series of actions he says the city will not let happen again.

“Any time work is done in Chinatown, a red flag should go up,” Formby said. 

Honolulu’s Chinatown is the original downtown of Oahu. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Historic District of Hawaii that requires a special state review for restoration or building projects.

“I feel bad the city went ahead and did something like this. It was so dumb. We lost a part of history,” said Bob Au.

Au’s family owns the Lai Fong building that was constructed in 1880. His grandparents initially used the building to sell custom-made Chinese clothing and Asian merchandise but later turned it into an antique store, now open only by appointment.

Au says not only were the city’s sidewalk pavers destroyed but also the pavers on a section of his own property fronting the store.

In the early days, Honolulu’s downtown streets were dusty, muddy dirt byways often featuring only wooden boards for sidewalks. When the city began to install sidewalks, workers used materials at hand including coral, bricks and shipping ballast stones.

Very few ballast stone sidewalks remain in the city now to bring back memories of the days when early settlers and Hawaiian monarchs eagerly jumped into the sailing ship trade of the 1800s with their exports of sandalwood and other island valuables.

These pavers formed the sidewalk in front of the Lai Fong Department Store for well more than a century. (Courtesy: Bob Au/2023)
The empty space left after the pavers were removed was soon covered over with new concrete. (Courtesy: Bob Au/2023)

Formby said the city removed the sidewalk in front of Lai Fong because city inspectors found it to be unsafe, first in 2013 and again in 2018. Work to replace it began this year with a public notice sent on Feb. 9 that announced the city planned to repair deteriorating sidewalks in Chinatown/Downtown throughout the summer.

Normal oversight was missing on the Lai Fong sidewalk, Formby found out later, because the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting never saw the plans for the Chinatown sidewalk repairs.

That was because the work did not require a building permit since it was considered minor above-grade infrastructure improvements — not something that needed special district permits under the city’s Special District ordinance.

Formby still hopes it might be possible to retrieve some of the ballast stones intact from the Oahu Aggregate landfill or to find out if some were taken during the demolition project by onlookers recognizing their value.

He says the city would accept back the pavers with no sanctions.

“The ballast stones are only pieces of rock but they tell a story — an important story,” says historian Peter Young. “When we walk on the granite stones and the basalt curbs, they are physical reminders that bring us closer to history.”

Young was director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources as well as the State Historic Preservation Officer from 2003 to 2007.

DLNR said in an email Thursday that if the city had followed the law and had the work properly reviewed by the state, the historic Chinatown pavers might have been saved.

“Perhaps the ballast stones could have been reset so that they no longer caused a tripping hazard,” said Jessica Puff, architecture branch chief for SHPD. “Perhaps they could have been removed and installed in another appropriate location or donated to another historic resource that utilized ballast stones in a similar fashion.”

Bob Au Lai Fong Chinatown year stamp cracked concrete granite pavers concrete sidewalk historical construction replace
Bob Au, owner of Lai Fong Department Store, stands on the new concrete sidewalk in front of his Chinatown building. Au’s historic granite pavers have been removed and replaced with a concrete sidewalk. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The Historic Hawaii Foundation was equally dismayed by the destruction.

“The character of Chinatown is not only its buildings and architecture but also its fine-grained features such as its basalt curbs and the ballast paving stones,” said the foundation’s Kiersten Faulkner. “Chinatown’s character is comprised of all these things. When even one feature is removed the overall feeling of the place starts to erode. We all want the sidewalks to be safe. But it is not necessary to destroy them to make them safer.”

Chinatown advocates say if there is any good to come of the destruction of the Lai Fong pavers it’s that it has put the city on notice that Chinatown is not just a place to be developed but also to be carefully preserved.

Lee Stack, president of the Chinatown Improvement Association, says it’s time for the Blangiardi administration to see preservationists not just as “people who say no” but as valuable assets who want to retain the historic features that make residents and visitors eager to visit Chinatown in the first place.

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