By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Downtown Hilo’s historic S. Hata Building is celebrating its 100th birthday this month.
The landmark masonry structure, built in 1912 by Japanese businessman Sadanosuke Hata, is remarkable not only for its age and well-preserved condition, but for its significant architectural style reminiscent of an earlier time in Hawaii.
Just as important is its cultural connection to the Hata family, which represents a rich history of the community embodied in a building that lives on today at 308 Kamehameha Ave.
Nancy Cabral, president of Coldwell Bankers Day-Lum Properties, which manages the building, remembers walking into the S. Hata store 35 years ago to buy fabric.
“The first floor was wide open with high ceilings,” she said. “They had everything in there, and then you would go down to the Kress for a soda.”
The building is a significant example of early 20th century architecture in Hilo, and is also important for its association with the development of downtown Hilo and the Hata Store, according to the registration form for the National Register of Historic Places, filed with the federal Department of the Interior in 1991.
The building is especially significant as “one of the earliest masonry buildings to be erected in Hilo, and (that) it was built by a Japanese rather than a westerner,” according to the nomination form.
The two-story reinforced concrete building has 106 feet of frontage on Kamehameha Avenue. Some parts of the building, including transoms above the World War II-era aluminum doors and windows, are from the original construction.
Similar buildings were built in Honolulu during the time, but few on the Neighbor Islands, where most structures were made of wood. “Such a masonry commercial building … was an imposing edifice and a substantial image of the progressiveness of the community,” the nomination form said.
“That the S. Hata Building was built in the Oriental section of town is important as an indication of the upward mobility of this segment of the population,” said the nomination form, and the Hilo Tribune newspaper commented on Jan. 2, 1912, that “Hilo will soon be able to rejoice in an additional concrete block.’”
As a “beautiful example of Renaissance-revival architecture,” the building also won an award from the state for the authenticity of its restoration.
Hata, meanwhile, was recognized as Hilo’s oldest and foremost Japanese merchant who was one of the few Hawaii Island business owners to base his operations in Hilo and establish branches on other islands, maintaining two in Honolulu and one in Japan. He started as an agent for a wholesale business in Honolulu, where he was responsible for taking orders on the Hamakua Coast, which inspired him to move to Hilo and start his own business in 1896 selling “silks, kimonos and oriental souvenirs.” The business prospered and he built his impressive new building in 1912 for $25,000 on what was then Front Street, now Kamehameha Avenue.
During World War II, the Hata Building was seized by the U.S. government and later auctioned. Hata’s daughter purchased the building at that time, according to the documents filed with the Interior Department.
Stewart Hussey, owner of the Hussey Appraisal Group Hawaii, currently occupies the “penthouse” office suite and has been an S. Hata Building tenant for more than 20 years. He’s also served as the building manager.
“It’s a great building. I love its authenticity,” Hussey said. “It has a rich history and represents Hilo’s evolution from the plantation days to the present.
The most significant renovation occurred in 1990 when owned by investor David Levenson. He acquired it from Lyn Kagawa, who was the last descendant of S. Hata to own the building. Levenson hired Volcano architect Boone Morrison to design the renovation and contractor Bruce Hanson did the work.
“It was slated to be demolished in the 1980s,” Hussey said, “when Dave Levenson acquired it and got American Savings to finance the renovation. Like any old building, it needs constant attention.”
Noted architect Honolulu architect William C. Furer designed the building. He and his son, Frederick, were major contributors to the business of architecture in Hawaii, with the elder Furer being instrumental in founding the Hawaii chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Yoichi Hata, Sadanosuke’s brother, founded Y. Hata and Co. in 1913, which continues to operate today under family ownership with locations on Hawaii Island and Oahu.
The S. Hata building was listed as a state historic site in 1989 and added to the National Historic Register in 1991.
Retail businesses occupy the first floor. Offices are located on the second and third floors. In May 2003, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, a museum of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, opened in the restored building. Currently there are 13 tenants, including the Discovery Center and long-timers like Kipuka Smoke Shop, Cafe Pesto, and Gallery of Dreams. “They all consider themselves family,” Cabral said.
Honolulu businessman David Takeyama and his sister, Jan Sullivan, are the current owners of the building.
This year Takeyama plans to renovate the bathrooms and lobby with new paint and flooring, and to bring the building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. “It’ll be nice and hopefully will encourage other business owners to fix up their properties,” he said.
The building is a sturdy survivor, , Cabral said, having made it through two major tsunamis without a major problem. “It’s a nice anchor to have downtown.” A private anniversary party is planned for the owners, the building’s neighbors and friends this week, she said.
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.