Hilo, My Hometown

Richard Tillinghast

Fan-like crowns of palm trees wave over the corrugated tin roofs of utilitarian commercial buildings in Hilo. Rows of wooden storefronts project an improvised rawness, as though the carpenters had just put away their hammers and saws. You can almost smell the pine resin. After a rain, steam rises from the sun-warmed streets. I like it that you can buy leis at Walmart and the Sack ‘n’ Save. I enjoy the raffish street life in this city on the Big Island of Hawaii—burnouts, beachcombers with bad teeth and bloodshot eyes, old hippies with venerable beards and Hari Krishna clones in their dhotis with shaved heads and little pigtails, tilakas painted on their foreheads, pounding their hand-drums and wailing out their bhajans.

I like the dreadlocks and aloha shirts, Polynesian tattoos on legs and forearms, people going about their daily errands in flip-flops and cargo shorts, carrying furled umbrellas. Sometimes men from the upland ranches up by Waimea walk by bow-legged in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. In Hawaiian they are called paniolos, a word that comes from the Spanish español. The first cowboys came here in the 19th century from Hispanic California.

Hilo feels like a sleepy South Seas port straight off the pages of a story by Somerset Maugham. Fronting Hilo Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii, the town climbs the slope leading up to the volcano, Mauna Loa, and looks out on the sea. Life moves to the rhythm of the trade winds that stir the fronds of the palm trees lining the bay and help to blow away the “vog” emanating from the still-active volcano. The town’s more substantial buildings, like the vaguely Egyptian-looking art deco Bank of Hawaii, the classic revival Federal Building, and the Hawaiian Telephone Company building which combines features of traditional island style with aspects of California Mission architecture, exist in a kind of time-warp.

One of the oldest houses in Hilo was built in 1839 by the Rev. Mr. Lyman and his wife Sarah—originally a one-story thatched-roof structure of ōhi’a and koa wood. As their family and their mission grew, they expanded the house in 1855, adding a second story and attic.  The house, now roofed with corrugated tin instead of thatch, still stands in Hilo as part of the Lyman Museum. With its handcrafted nineteenth-century furniture, most of it made in the woodshop where the missionaries taught carpentry to young men of the island, the house would look more at home in Vermont than in the Pacific.

Nearby stands Haili Church, which was constructed in the late 1850s. Taken together with the Lyman House, it stands as a statement about the impact the missionaries made on the Big Island. Architecture is always so much more than building. Haili Church’s sparse, spare spire, competing with the baroque, domed steeple of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic church further up the hill, rises above the low buildings of downtown Hilo, and when my friends and I go fishing off Coconut Island we see it from there. Both Haili Church and St. Joseph’s are imports, introduced species, bringing New England Protestantism and Roman Catholicism to the islands.

Architects and builders working here have responded to the challenge of establishing something man-made and beautiful in this humid temperate climate of cooling ocean breezes and sudden showers. The architects who have worked in Hilo, known and unknown, have taken seriously their mission to adorn, please, and delight. And because the buildings of note here are sprinkled throughout the town among plainer vernacular structures, they do not compete with each other as skyscrapers do in New York and other big cities. Here buildings stand alone against the low skyline, and can be viewed from many different angles and perspectives.


One of my favorites is the Federal Building, a handsome, white, three-story structure that faces onto Kalakaua Park. The park the Federal Building overlooks is named after King David Kalakaua. The king, who reigned from 1874 until his death at the age of 54 in 1891 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, was one of the most beloved of Hawaiian rulers and is known as the Merrie Monarch for his love of the good life. Having experienced the worst of missionary asceticism during his schooling at the Chiefs’ Children’s School in Honolulu, Kalakaua became a supporter of native Hawaiian culture, with its pleasure-loving ways and its roots in ancient Polynesia.

The King championed the hula and ukulele music, and helped popularize the ancient Polynesian sport of surfing—hard as it may be to picture the portly monarch hanging ten. His fondness for drinking, gambling and carousing, and his love of the wahines also contributed to his merriment. But Kalakaua was fighting a losing battle against the Americanization of the islands. His last words were, “Tell my people I tried.”