Hidden treasures — Kapahulu substation

Estee Manfredi | Sept. 24, 2020

The years following statehood (August 1959) were a period of rapid growth for Honolulu. Modern high-rise structures replaced old buildings and emphasis was put on designing architecture that blended in with its surroundings and on planning more green areas.

It was during this time that the Ala Moana Center, the largest open-air mall on Oahu, was built and the state capitol was designed to symbolize the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Waikiki Zoo also got a new entrance that was built to complement the three banyan trees that fronted the zoo.

It was around this time that Hawaiian Electric also started to think about the appearances of structures and the company’s environmental impact.

In December 1971, Hawaiian Electric connected service to its 150,000th residential customer. With more communities being developed, the company was one of the first utilities in the country to buy large substation transformers with low sound levels to install in residential neighborhoods.

The company also started an initiative to improve the appearance of powerlines, power plant designs, landscaping and substations — making them less noticeable by blending them in with their surroundings.

That’s why several of our enclosed substations like the ones on Kuhio Avenue and Kaiolu Street in Waikiki have decorative walls.

The Kapahulu substation was designed by the architect group Wimberly Whisenand Allison and Tong

But to the best of our knowledge, only one boasts a sculpture wall. (If you know of others that have unusual architecture, please let us know so we can look into it!)

Built in 1971, the Kapahulu substation was designed by the architect group Wimberly Whisenand Allison and Tong and features a sculpture wall by renowned architectural sculptor Edward M. Brownlee.

The firm, now known as WATG, is one of the world’s leading resort architecture firms.

Architect Peter Wimberly, one of the founders of what was known in the 70s as Wimberly Whisenand Alison and Tong, has been designing in Honolulu since 1945. An article from the December 2000 issue of Honolulu Weekly showcases Wimberly’s architectural contributions to Honolulu. The article says some of his typical design elements included the use of local materials, forms and figurations, patterns and motifs derived from the cultures of the Pacific.

Artist Edward M. Brownlee moved to Hawaii in 1953 and studied under Jean Charlot and Gustav Ecke while working on his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Hawaii. He was a sculptor who was influenced by the art of Asia, Oceania. Brownlee believed that one percent of public construction should be set aside for artwork. While his sculptures can be found all over the world, in Honolulu they can be found in Chinatown, Ala Moana Center, the Honolulu International Airport and at our Kapahulu substation.

Brownlee and Wimberly collaborated professionally for 40 years, lending their artistic influences to beautify even the most utilitarian spaces of our everyday lives. To this day, almost 50 years after it was built, we still get inquiries about this beautiful sculpture wall.

Estee Manfredi is a corporate librarian at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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