In 1884, banker and businessman of the Hawaiian kingdom, Samuel Mills Damon, inherited the ahupua’a, (a land division that runs from the mountain top to the sea) of Moanalua, and with it, the fish ponds and fishing rights. Moanalua comprised a total of 6,000 acres of land. It’s western edge is the ridge top formed between the valleys of Moanalua and Halawa down to the eastern shore of the mouth of Pearl Harbor, known as Fort Kamehameha. The eastern boundary bordered Kalihi valley's west facing ridge line all the way to Kalihi Kai and the shore of Keehi lagoon.
This land legacy was bequeathed to Damon under the will of Ke Ali’i Bernice Pauahi Bishop, grand daughter of Kamehameha I, and the last living member of the House of Kamehameha. Damon first moved from Honolulu to Moanalua in 1890, and took up permanent residence in the summer cottage of Prince Lot Kapuaiwa, who reigned as Kamehameha V. He revered the history of the king’s cottage c.1850, and set about to restore and renovate it and the cook's house, adding two new additions: the decagon room for entertaining and the back house for use as a bedroom.
Moanalua Gardens was established in 1898, following Damon’s inspirational visit to Britain, where he attended Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The gardens were originally located in an area of upper Mapunapuna that is makai (ocean side) of the present day Moanalua freeway. The track of land consisted of 40 acres of rice patties and lo’i (taro patches) that were transformed by Donald Macintyre, Damon’s Scottish horticultural landscaper, into vast lawns with shade trees, palms, mangoes, monkey pod trees and tropical plants and flowers that were imported from all over the world. Macintyre introduced the first anthurium plant to the Hawaiian islands, as well as orchids. Expansive glass atriums were built within the gardens to house and display the exotic flowers.
Damon wanted to create a truly multicultural gardens, similar to those he had experienced throughout Britain. His commitment began with the preservation of the Hawaiian culture at it’s heart. After all, he had been gifted this land from his beloved friend, the princess. He repaired the existing Hale Pili (Hawaiian thatched house) and had new ones built to house Hawaiian artifacts and cultural treasures. To represent the countries of the Pacific Rim, Damon brought artisans from Japan to create a Japanese garden and tea houses and from China to build the Chinese Hall. Through his bank, Damon financed the Oahu railroad making sure the first stop on the railroad was at Moanalua, ensuring that his guests could arrive by train or horse drawn carriage for parties held in the Chinese Hall.
Sadly, by the first decade of the twentieth century, the U.S. government condemned most of the original Ahupua’a of Moanalua in order to create vast military bases for the Army and Navy. After Damon died in 1928, the estate was managed by his trustees who continued to operate the original gardens until the late 1950s. By 1956 the Damon Estate had sold huge tracks of Moanalua’s land to commercial and residential developers. However, in 1957 the lead trustee and heir of Samuel M. Damon, died, bringing a halt to the estate’s frenetic liquidation of land. The new direction of the trust was to develop its own land, which ultimately lead to the destruction of the original gardens, that was transformed into the Mapunapuna industrial subdivision, but it paved the way for moving the gardens to its new home mauka (mountain side) of the freeway, on land that the estate and family held privately.
The trustee sought the guidance of landscape designer Paul Weissich, who designed the present day park. He salvaged the important structures, the Kamehameha cottage, the Chinese hall and the Japanese tea house and moved them to their new and present day locations, building new features such as the koi pond in front of the Chinese hall, and corresponding lo’i for the King’s cottage. The new site of the gardens was home to magnificent trees that had been simultaneously planted by the late Macintyre during the creation of the original gardens. The collection includes the famous monkey pod tree known as the Hitachi tree, two other monkey pod trees of exceptional scale and size, a Bodhi tree and a Cuban mahogany tree, recently lost, due to age. These trees are included on the exceptional tree list for the City and County of Honolulu.
The Prince Lot Hula Festival was founded in 1978 by Nalani Olds, in honor of Prince Lot Kapuāiwa, who utilized the grounds of his summer cottage to host celebrations where hula could be publicly performed on the cottage’s lanai (porch). The first two years of the festival performances were held on flatbed trucks. Desiring a more tactile connection with the aina, (land) and it’s surrounding natural beauty, Nalani Olds envisioned a permanent stage for the performers, and with the support of her husband Alan Napoleon, who was the secretary of the Damon Estate, they persuaded the estate trustees to build a permanent mound that would serve as a performance space for the gardens. Hence, in 1980 the Pa ‘Kama’ipu’upa’a’ was dedicated and used for the next 37 years.
In 2007, following the death of Samuel Mills Damon’s last grandchild, which triggered the dissolution of the Damon Estate, John Philip (J.P.) Damon, a great grandson of the namesake, purchased the privately owned 24 acre (97,000 square meter) park from the Damon Estate. Today J.P. continues to uphold his great grandfather’s vision by maintaining the grounds, and preserving and restoring the architectural structures from different cultures around the world. A Japanese Tea House c.1900 serves as the current Gift Shop on the property, King Kamehameha V’s Summer Cottage c.1850 and it’s Hawaiian Lo’i, as well as the Chinese Hall c.1903 and it’s bridge and koi pond are available for private tours and events. Future plans include reconstructing Hale Pili, (traditional Hawaiian thatched houses), growing the collection of plants on the property to include more endemic Hawaiian species, creating an educational branch to bring more Keiki (children) to experience the gardens, and launching a docent program to enhance the visitors experience.
The gardens are open to the public daily from 8 AM to 5 PM for general admission. In addition, both the grounds and architectural structures are available for private events, photography, and filming upon request. Please note the park is currently undergoing a series of comprehensive improvements. However, the park will remain open and fully operational during all phases of construction, and we look forward to welcoming you to the historic Moanalua Gardens. E Komo Mai!