Long before the first cement piles were driven into the ground in 1957, Ala Moana Center’s prime piece of property wasn’t prime at all. It was swamp land.
But a man with tremendous vision saw potential in the ocean-front lot.
Walter Dillingham purchased the land in 1912 for $25,000 from the estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who put the site up for sale as “unproductive land.”
“That’s about $500,000 in today’s dollars,” said author and historian Bob Sigall. “He thought maybe someday it could be useful. That’s probably the understatement of the last century.”
In the early 1920s, Dillingham was involved in dredging projects in Honolulu’s harbors and yacht bases.
“Much of the property on the makai side of Kapiolani Blvd. from downtown Honolulu to Waikiki and into Waikiki was created through dredging activity of the company,” explained Bill Wilson, president of Hawaiian Dredging Construction Company Inc. “And so when you dredge the bottom of the ocean, you’re creating new land so you have find a place to put it.”
That “place” was in the middle of nowhere — the perfect spot to unload tons of coral.
“You run big pipes from your dredging machine onto the shore and you pump all this ground-up coral onto the shore to fill in all of those watery areas,” said Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown.
“There used to be a small airfield in 1929 where Ward Warehouse is today, and they were thinking of making a paved airport behind us here at Ala Moana Center in the ’40s, but that was never built,” said Sigall.
The white clunky coral sat idle for two decades before being reclaimed by Walter Dillingham’s son Lowell, who was president of Hawaiian Dredging affiliate, Hawaiian Land Company.
“Probably after World War II, people started seriously thinking about the development of this area,” Sigall said. “For instance, the original drive-in theater where Don Quijote is today opened up in 1948. We had Ala Moana Beach Park built and dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 so this area was starting to come alive.”
Lowell Dillingham knew that as well and in 1948 initiated the Ala Moana Center project.
In 1957, Hawaii’s first regional shopping center would break ground.