Part IV: Early Years

Photo: Bob Sigall

August 13, 1959.

It was eight days before Hawaii became a state and, while there was excitement about Hawaii joining the union, this day was all about Ala Moana Center.

It was dedication day.

“People were invited to an 8 a.m ceremony. They were told to get there early, 7:45 a.m., and the ceremony had about a thousand people,” said author and historian Bob Sigall.

Photo: Bob Sigall
Photo: Bob Sigall

Organizers recreated old Hawaii. Guests arrived by horse-drawn carriage, a stark contrast to the contemporary Hawaii the mall represented.

“The grand opening was a huge event in Hawaii history,” Sigall said. “We had Mayor Neal Blaisdell there. Gov. Quinn was there. We had people impersonating our royalty, so we had somebody dressed up as King Kalakaua who was a merchant prince of Hawaii.”

The main players of the project were also there, Walter and Lowell Dillingham, whose companies transformed Honolulu from a whaling port to a modern commercial hub.

Ala Moana’s original logo, the feathered cape of the ancient Hawaiian warrior, was a symbol of progress of the country’s newest state. Retail was also changing and once Sears made the commitment to move, others quickly followed.

“It came out in the papers that Sears was going to move, so I called Don Graham and I said, ‘Don, I’m interested in the location,'” said Gulab Watumull, Watumull Brothers chairman. “I said, ‘You must be busy.’ He said, ‘You’re the second one to call me.'”

Photo: Bob Sigall
Photo: Bob Sigall

Phase One offered nearly 700,000 square feet of shopping with 87 stores and 4,000 parking stalls.

Besides Sears, the mall’s original tenants included Shirokiya, Reyn’s, The Slipper House, Territorial Savings, Foodland, Dairy Queen, Longs Drugs, the U.S. Post Office and Watumull’s.

In the first year, an estimated 30,000 people visited Ala Moana on weekdays and 40,000 on weekends. Shoppers spent more than $40 million.

By the second year, shoppers surpassed forecasts, spending more than $50 million.

Ala Moana was definitely on the map, different from any other mall in America.

“The Hawaiian sense of place and the uniqueness of trying to maintain that — that separates Hawaii from any mall in the U.S. mainland,” said Francis Cofran of General Growth Properties, the center’s general manager.

Photo: Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co.
Photo: Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co.

Phase Two opened in 1966, doubling the size of Ala Moana Center to 1,351,000 square-feet with 156 stores and 7,800 parking spaces. New anchor tenants included J.C. Penney and Liberty House.

“The second phase of Ala Moana in the mall, that part is a little bit different because it isn’t flat,” said Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown. “The mall actually goes up as you walk toward the Diamond Head end and in the center part was the koi pond.”

A pond that many fondly remember. “I used to spend hours lying on my chest you know, trying to catch them,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “My parents knew I was safe, so they’d go shop at Liberty House — most people don’t know what Liberty House is anymore — and I tried to catch the koi.”

Ala Moana had become a destination for local residents.

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