Transforming old duck ponds and swamp land into a valuable real estate project seemed unimaginable.
But, like Dillingham, developer Donald Graham saw potential in the property and designed an open-air mall with two levels for stores and parking.
In order for the mall to become a reality, Dillingham needed one final committment.
“Dillingham convinced Sears to move from its free-standing store in Honolulu to the Ala Moana Center site, and that was what was called an anchor tenant,” said Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown. “You needed a major store that was going to definitely bring customers in and Sears in Honolulu was it.”
It was the deal-sealer and funding was secured. Graham’s idea was ready to be put into motion.
Young Heather Dillingham had the honor of starting the pile driving into the earth’s surface and an army of more than 1,000 men from Hawaiian Dredging began work on the project. Cement was mixed on site and thousands of piles, beams and girders were manufactured there as well.
“It was our center being developed by our company and we were building it,” said Bill Wilson, president of Hawaiian Dredging Construction Company Inc. “This includes the Ala Moana office building (and) the Ala Moana Hotel.”
Aloha Tower had been the tallest building on Oahu for years until the Ala Moana office building was built. Graham’s intricate model was coming to life.
Hawaii was on the brink of statehood and the world was eager to visit the islands. Waikiki was already a happening place and Ala Moana was on the edge of the excitement.
“There was a sense of, ‘We’re becoming modern. We’re changing really rapidly,’ and Ala Moana is right in the center of this concept of rapid change,” Brown said.
It was a time of great transition including the growing popularity of cars. The automobile was another reason Ala Moana was built — shopping in downtown Honolulu was losing its luster.
“The problem with those urban areas is that there’s no place to park, and so as people increasingly got automobiles, the retailing shifted to separate structures that were surrounded by huge parking lots,” Brown said.
Ala Moana would offer shopping elbow room and 4,000 stalls of free parking “and it was only steps from your car to the store,” Brown said. “They just really hammered at that, but with good reason because that was a huge attraction.”
Crews planted 110 palm trees, 42 monkey pods and hundreds of tropical plants. Coral chips from dredging projects provided finishing touches. Excitement was brewing.
“They successfully cultivated that. They successfully got you excited through their pre-opening advertising to really want to get there because this is the biggest thing in town,” Brown said.
Hawaii’s new gathering place was ready to be unveiled to the world.