Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial - Atlas Obscura

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Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial

This saltwater swimming pool, which is the last of its kind in the United States, is slowly crumbling within sight of multiple high-end beachside hotels. 


Waikiki is Hawai’i’s busiest tourist destination, and millions of people visit its beaches every year. But just south of Waikiki, along the shoreline, is a shuttered saltwater swimming pool named the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial that tourists might only briefly walk or drive past before moving on to somewhere else.

The structure consists of a 100-meter by 40-meter pool surrounded by concrete walls as well as two sets of bleachers on the side closest to shore. The entrance, which is located in between the bleachers, consists of one larger central arch crowned with eagles and two shorter arches on either side. Admiring the cream-colored Beaux-Arts edifice, you wonder why it was built—or why it is closed.

The Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial was first conceived of in 1921 as a memorial to people from Hawai’i who had fought in World War I. At the time, saltwater swimming was quite popular around the world, so it seemed natural to construct such a pool near Waikiki, which was already becoming a popular tourist destination. The structure was built and funded by the territorial legislature. The natatorium was then opened on August 24, 1927, which coincided with the birthday of Olympic Gold Medalist and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku, who also was the first to swim in the pool.

In the first two decades after it was built, the natatorium was quite popular with tourists and celebrities as well as locals, and it was also used for swimming lessons. It was even briefly used for training army personnel during World War II. However, the pool deteriorated over time and was eventually closed in 1979 because it was unsafe. Since then, it has remained closed.

The Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, which prevented its demolition by either the Honolulu government or private developers, but this has also complicated efforts to repair or redevelop the site. Additionally, refurbishing the pool so that it meets modern safety standards has been difficult. The local community in Honolulu generally supports repairing and reopening the site, but various proposals for the site, including partial demolition of the natatorium, have faced opposition. Having said this, the front façade was partially refurbished in the late 1990s.

At this point in time, both the local governments and community support groups are wrangling over what to do with the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial. Meanwhile, the structure is still slowly crumbling along the shoreline near one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States.

Know Before You Go

The natatorium remains closed to the public, but it is still possible to see the exterior of the structure. While the natatorium can be spotted from many areas near the shoreline in Waikiki, it is possible to walk up to the natatorium exterior. The site is located off of Kalakaua Avenue just south (or, to use Oahu’s directional reference system, “Diamond Head”) of Waikiki. Parking is available directly in front of the front façade or on the nearby street, although it is relatively easy to walk to the location from Waikiki, and buses also travel to the area.

Kaimana Beach, which is a relatively quiet sandy beach popular with local residents, is adjacent to the natatorium, and the small but interesting Waikiki Aquarium is located nearby. For reference, all beaches in Hawai'i are free to use by the general public.

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