Hawaiian Architectural Styles

The Evolution of Architecture in the Islands

Hawaiian architecture has a distinct style that has evolved over time, capturing the character and spirit of Hawaii’s people and incorporating the various influences from around the world.

After Western contact in 1778 structures in Hawaii began to show influences from all of the various visitors to Hawaii, many of whom became permanent Hawaii residents.

These first visitors to Hawaii included early traders (many from Europe), whalers from New England, fur trappers from Russia, New England missionaries, Mormons from Utah, French Catholics, and many others who landed on Hawaii’s shores for one reason or another.

A constant infusion of new styles reflects the history of the islands from ancient times through the monarchy era, the territorial years, through statehood and up to the modern day.

During this time the many architectural influences have been revealed in Hawaii’s building styles, including those brought by plantation laborers from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, and many other countries.

Hawaiian Mission Architecture

When the American Protestant missionaries began arriving in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s the built frame houses much like the farmhouses of New England. These homes typically had high-pitched roofs with overlapping weatherboards called clapboards. These were relatively simple, reflecting the puritan ideals and Christian virtues of modesty and plainness.

Mission homes were built in Honolulu, Lahaina, and other mission outposts around Hawaii. For example, the Wai‘oli Mission House was built in Hanalei, Kauai in the 1820s. The nearby Wai‘oli Church was built in the 1840s and features a wonderful example of a split-pitch roof. The main timbers for the beams were from ohia-lehua trees in the nearby mountains.

Soon this Mission Architecture style began to incorporate coral blocks from Hawaii’s reefs, with the coral serving as a substitute for New England bricks.

Another early example Hawaiian Mission Architecture is Honolulu’s Kawaiahao Church, built in the New England style with Gothic influences.

Kawaiahao Church, dedicated in 1842, is Oahu’s oldest and largest church, and also one of Hawaii’s oldest coral block structures displaying Hawaiian Mission Architecture. More than 1,000 people worked on the construction, cutting more than 14,000 coral blocks (many weighing more than one ton) from the reef.

Next to the church is the Mission Houses Museum which is a wonderfully preserved example of the early wood frame houses, and now a Registered National Historic Landmark. The three buildings still standing from the original Sandwich Islands Mission headquarters are: the Frame House (Hale Laau), the Chamberlain House (Hale Kamalani), and the Printing Office (Hale Pai).

Hawaiian Renaissance Architecture

King Kamehameha V fathered Hawaiian renaissance architecture when he commissioned Ali‘iōlani Hale in 1850, intending to use the bulding as his royal palace, though it became the monarchy’s judicial center instead. The building reflects Italian themes with a sleek beauty.

Gothic Architectural Style

The Hawaii Catholic Church was the first to bring Gothic Architecture to the Hawaiian Islands in 1910 with Gothic additions to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. This project consisted of an extravagant porch over the entrance. Later Doric columns were installed ant the Gothic facade was removed, turning the structure into a Classical building.

Romanesque Architectural Style

As the Hawaiian monarchy era came to a close at the end of the 1800s and the Territorial era began, a Romanesque Architecture style appeared in Hawaii, displaying forms and principles reminscent of 11th and 12th century European structures.

Good examples of the Romanesque style may be found in several of the buildings of Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. This distinctly Romanesque architecture utilized large, basalt boulders, and the dark colors of these rocks creates a unique Hawaiian Romanesque style. Some of the features associated with the Romanesque style in general are groin and barrel vaults, cruciform piers for support, and rounded arches.

Beaux-Arts and Art Deco Architectural Styles

Art Deco and Beaux Arts style began to be seen in Hawaii in the 1920s. Beaux Arts is a Neoclassical form that originated in France in the 1800s, giving modern form to ancient Roman and Greek architectural styles.

Art Deco in turn modernizes a wide range of architectural styles. In Hawaii the use of tropical themes and Hawaiian motifs incorporated into structures introduced the Art Deco and Beaux-Arts styles. The Hawaii Theatre was an example of Art Deco features, while Waikiki’s War Memorial Natatorium reflected Beaux Arts.

International Architectural Style

The International style of architecture is exemplified by the Hawaii State Capitol Building. An American form of Bauhaus architecture, the International style was first developed in the 1920s and became popular in the 1960s.

Many Honolulu office buildings were constructed in the International style, employing classical principles in simplified forms without much ornamentation, and usually in dull colors such as white, beige, gray, and black. In Hawaii this International Architecture took on a unique form, reflecting Island motifs.

Hawaiian Plantation Architecture

Labor homesteads in Hawaii led to the development of the Hawaiian Plantation architectural style. Features of this style include vertical plank siding, large porticos, wide-hipped or bellcast roofs, and deep-bracketed eaves. This became a signature style in Hawaii in the 1970s and 1980s, and was later adopted in many other locations.


The age of skyscrapers came to Oahu in the 1990s with the building of the First Hawaiian Tower and the First Hawaiian Center, both on Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu.

Even these penultimate modern structures have features that reflect the unique culture and environment in the Islands, such as window styles incorporating tradewinds and designed to take advantage of ocean and mountain views.

Evolving Hawaiian Architecture

Modern Hawaiian architecture continues to emphasize broad lanais and interior courtyards, often incorporating other styles such as California Mission architecture as well as Asian influences.

As Hawaii moves into the future we will continue to see the evolution of modern Hawaiian architecture. Architects such as Mark Eyler continue to redefine contemporary and traditional themes while also incorporating new ideas and materials as well as sustainable building techniques.