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Read about the history of Queen Emma Gardens

QEG has a rich history, James W. Foster has written a wonderful article about the early days of our home.

Article can be downloaded here in word doc form


This pamphlet attempts to give, in very distilled form, the complex story of the Queen Emma Gardens development – how it happened – and to honor the architect – a man who followed his dream and became a great designer.

What generated this endeavor was two fold: first, to satisfy personal interest and then to offer information that might give residents another perspective on the place they call home. The writer enjoys living in Queen Emma Gardens and pride of ownership has been heightened in the process of researching facts relating to its existence.

Appreciation is expressed for the assistance and resources made available at the Reference and Records Center of the City and County of Honolulu, where a stash of newspaper clippings were helpful in piecing together Queen Emma Gardens’ early history. Material on the life and work of Minoru Yamasaki was drawn from his own book, A Life In Architecture, published in 1979 by Weatherhill, New York and Nokayo.

- James W. Foster

Queen Emma Gardens

the making of a landmark

Dismay and furore in early 60’s Honolulu affected an architectural competition that ended happily in the design for Queen Emma Gardens as it stands today. Anticipating a landmark that could set the love for downtown renewal, the City ultimately chose a plan by one of the world’s outstanding architect in the later half of the 20thcentury.

It all began in late 1949 when a Honolulu City and County Resolution, in compliance with the Territorial Government’s Urban Redevelopment Cect, was followed in 1950 by creation of the Honolulu Redevelopment Agency (“HRA”). These moves locally drew incentive from earlier U.S. Government legislation mandating aid to cities concerned with slum blights. In due course a capital grant was awarded by the Federal Housing and Finance Agency to the HRA for initial planning of redevelopment projects geared to meet requirements of the 1949 Federal Housing Act.

The City Planning Commission and the HRA proceeded with surveys and planning, subsequently designating three blighted areas for redevelopment. Of specific interest here, area No. 3 contained more than 117 acres encompassing eleven blocks that were originally in the town’s residential outskirts. Deterioration had set in as early owners moved to valleys and heights and lower income groups sought cheap rent and proximity to town. By 1950 the area was one of tenements with thousands of sub-standard units – a distressed, overcrowded environment lacking play space and subject to fires. Because Area No. 3 was so large and one of the worst near downtown Honolulu, it was divided into smaller sections to assure successful projects and to minimize difficulties in relocating resident families.

The extent of such redevelopment problems here and elsewhere raised the necessity for additional Federal help. Broadening the effects of the 1949 Housing Act, Congress passed the National Housing Act of 1954 making localities eligible for insurance of loans and grant assistance for slum clearance, redevelopment financing, and urban blight prevention. The HRA then constructed a step-by-step program to meet Federal requirements for a contract with the Housing and Home Finance Agency in Washington.

After a workable program was adopted in accordance with Federal stipulations, the HRA made redevelopment designations in Kalihi, Kapalama and Nuuanu areas. In 1957 planning was begun for the Queen Emma project (part of Area No. 3) in one of Honolulu’s oldest slums. This embraced a total of five blocks (73.8 acres) bounded by six streets – School, Queen Emma, Kukui, Fort, Vineyard and College Walk – and Nuuanu Stream. As a whole, the Queen Emma Project was aimed to accommodate a new, modern commercial area, park, playground, churches, YMCA, a Chinese Temple and 8.3 acres for modern high rise apartment structures “offering the maximum in pleasing features compatible with costs and unexorbitant rents.”

Acquisition of parcels started early in 1959 after the City had secured a Federal loan of more than $9 million and a capital grant of $3,700,000 (in 1998 $50,670,000 and $20,831,000). The first location opened to bid for land purchase and development was the 8.3 acres portion that later became Queen Emma Gardens. Six proposals were received, with the winning bid submitted by Queen Emma Associates, a hui of principals from Honolulu, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

Announcement of the successful bid was made by the Commission then heading the HRA, a group of five prominent citizens chaired by Clarence Chun Hoon. Heated reaction to the design selection was widespread. Noted Honolulu architect, George Whisenand, declared the choice “incomprehensible”. Among others assailing the decision were Chamber of Commerce official M.L. Randolph, eminent lawyer J. Russell Cades and such local organizations as the American Institute of Architects and the Downtown Improvement Association. Continuing stories, editorials and letters to the editor in both morning and evening papers expressed negative opinions and charges against the selection: “circumvention of the Federal statute;” “a mockery;” call for a City Council airing; urging for a probe in the State legislature by Representative Thomas Gill; and a call for the resignation of the Commission.

Prompting the controversy was the character of the project design and also the way in which the Commission reached its decision. On one hand the architectural plan showed high rise buildings of massive size plus townhouses, the whole projecting heavy population density and too little open space. On the other it was revealed that the Commission had failed to confer with the appointed consultants and its own staff.

In January 1961 the Commission was forced to rescind its initial award and to reopen the bidding to new submissions following further criticism from a Federal analyst who had found all the original proposals economically unfeasible. Five developers resubmitted bids, which then received close scrutiny by two leading San Francisco architects and the Western Real Estate Corporation. In subsequent reports the layout of the Queen Emma Gardens, Ltd. proposal received high praise and ultimately won the Commission’s acceptance on March 7. Federal approval came two days later.

The final contract was signed on April 22, 1962, by the City and the development combine of E.E. Black, Ltd., Castle and Cooke, Inc., and Almin, Inc. of Michigan (Alfred Yee, engineer, and Minoru Yamasaki). With completion of an FHA unsecured mortgage loan of $10.2 million (perhaps the largest such loan in Federal history), ground was broken on September 27. The first tower was completed and open for rentals on October 14, 1963, and the whole project was officially finished on June 1, 1964.

Queen Emma Gardens, with 5 apartments of varied size, is notable for the distinctive design of its three related structures placed in a private park setting, which includes two Japanese-style tea houses bordering a large koi pond, swimming pools for adults and children, play areas and picnic sites. The overall quality is much enhanced by the extensive parking facilities placed underneath the gardens, a unique concept at the time.

Thirty-five years later, Queen Emma Gardens today remains a gracious oasis for apartment living close to the heart of vibrant downtown Honolulu.


The Man and His Work

Designer of outstanding work around the world, Minoru Yamasaki at mid-career became the architect of Queen Emma Gardens. His professional dedication and success is evident in his sumptuous book, A Life in Architecture, which provides his autobiography and architectural philosophy; color illustrations include Queen Emma Gardens among just twenty-nine projects he chose to present out of more than 150 completed by the 1979 year of publication.

A nisei born in Seattle in 1912, Yamasaki had the advantage of well-established emigrant grandparents and parents imbued with a vision and work ethic that was beneficial to their progeny. As he grew up, Minoru responded to the beauties of nature in the Seattle area while socially he learned to deal with racial prejudice – affecting on one hand his creative instincts and on the other his sensibility for feelings of those around him.

Upon graduation with honors from high school, Minoru lacked a career direction until exposure to an uncle’s architectural drawings gave him inspiration. With the encouragement of his father, he entered the University of Washington in pursuit of an architectural career. Through the course of his studies he was fraught with uncertainty about his drawing ability, a far-sighted professor gave have him encouragement by predicting he would become an outstanding architect. These were the difficult years of the great depression, necessitating arduous summer jobs in Alaskan salmon canneries for financial support. There were trying experiences, hardening his resolve to find a way of making his future life meaningful for himself and those around him.

On receiving his degree, Yamasaki moved to New York City to start his career. Lack of satisfaction job opportunity soon prompted him to seek a Master’s degree at a New York University night school, with day work providing sustenance. During this period of various work and study experiences he found creative pleasure in oil painting, thus further enhancing his visual acuity. He finally realized a professional break when a temporary job as a designer-draftsman opened the way for a seven-year position with the architects of the Empire State Building. His assignment to working drawings exposed Yamasaki to the intricacies of construction, affording him an important learning opportunity. Following Pearl Harbor – and a thorough background check – he was entrusted with a big defense project at a Naval station in New York State; this made him responsible for plans and construction details for ten different buildings, work which would stand him in good stead when establishing his own firm.

Yama, as he came to be called, was married in 1941 to Teruko, a promising student at New York’s Julliard School of Music. They shared a one-bedroom apartment with his younger brother, a medical student, and Minoru’s parents, who thus avoided the internment endured by Japanese-American living on the West Coast.

After completion of the Naval base work, Yama was briefly employed by the architects of Rockefeller Center. Then followed a stint with leaders in the field of industrial design and his subsequent decision to focus entirely on architecture. A year or so after the war’s end he accepted an offer as chief designer for a large Detroit firm, with an increased income allowing more comfortable living arrangements for his growing family. Confronted by prejudice in some exclusive suburbs, they settled in an old farmhouse in nearby Troy where they lived happily for twenty-five years.

Yamasaki resigned from the Detroit firm in 1949, designed some houses on his own and then joined in a partnership with two other architects. They established offices in both Detroit and St. Louis, generating so many commissions that the workload intruded on time with this family. Troubled by ulcers five years later, Yama broke up the partnership and set up his own firm. Among projects he undertook was a U.S. Statement Department Commission in Japan, providing opportunity to expand his knowledge of that country’s design traditions and, by a one-time extension of his itinerary to study great architecture of the past around the world. Out of his travels came reflection on the lack of humanistic qualities in contemporary structures and subsequent thoughts about his own stylistic direction.

Early in the ‘60’s the Yamasaki firm experienced dramatic growth of commissions, with the attendant stress made more acute for Minoru when he and his wife separated. Following a protracted illness and convalescence accompanied by unhappiness in the marital separation, he was reunited with his wife, two sons and daughter.

By the mid-60’s the firm’s practice attained the kind and scope of work, which Yamasaki had long envisioned. His book describes and color illustrates twenty-seven projects undertaken by Yamasaki and Associates between 1951 and 1978; striking major structures, they are located in thirteen states and in India, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Probably best known is the World Trade Center in New York City, its two 110-story towers incorporating “the proper scale relationship so necessary to man: they are intended to give him a soaring feeling, imparting pride and a sense of nobility in his environment,” as he states in his book.

Another passage in a Life in Architecturefurther reflects Yamasaki’s credo: “There are two areas related to the quality of architecture that I feel play an important role in determining what kind of man-made environment we will create for ourselves. These are architectural education and society's attitudes toward protecting the beauties of nature's wonders." With the unique, sensitive design of Queen Emma Gardens in its spacious park setting we are able to realize some of the meaning of Yamasaki’s philosophy put to practice.

- James W. Foster


1. Succession of Queen Emma Gardens ownership:

Oct. 1962 – Queen Emma Gardens Redevelopment Corp.

July 1990 – Robert Black Memorial Trust

Sept. 1998 - King and Queen Towers acquired for $41.4

million by Queen Emma Gardens Development

Co., Inc.

Jan. 1998 - Conversion of King and Queen Towers to


Oct, 2002 - Conversion of Prince Tower to Condominiums.

2. Other buildings in Honolulu designed by Minoru Yamasaki

and Associates:

1350 Ala Moana Boulevard

City Bank, 201 Merchant Street

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