Black and white image of kiawe tree
Tree of Life

Halekulani’s emblematic kiawe tree has borne witness to 130 years of storied history.

Text By
Rae Sojot
Images By
Wayne Levin

In 1887, 3-year-old Florence Hall, alongside her father, William Hall, planted a small thornless kiawe sapling in the grassy lawn of Halekulani. The simple, seaside ceremony took place just outside of the building where the young Florence had been born. Over the next century, the tree grew, its boughs shaped by the sun and sea breezes, its outstretched canopy a delicate latticework of leaf and stem. Through Hawai‘i’s emergence to statehood, two World Wars, tourism booms, and cultural renaissances, the tree has borne witness to events both grand and minute, holding court over a hundred years’ worth of contemplations, conversations, and celebrations. To this day, paradise is found and memories are made under the silvered boughs of this “grand lady,” as many hotel staff have come to call the arbor.

But in the early, silent hours of August 21, 2016, absent of any monitory wind or rain, the historic tree fell. It pitched over in the most ideal manner, falling between the shore passage railing and the House Without a Key’s stage. No one was hurt and no damage was done. The most unusual aspect of all was that no one witnessed its fall. Surveillance footage revealed the tree upright in one frame, and then moments later, simply lying down.

Following the recommendations of arborists, groundskeepers quickly moved to cover the exposed roots with wet burlap sacks. Some branches were removed, others coppiced. The roots have since reestablished, and tender new shoots now unfurl skyward. Today, the historic kiawe tree continues to be an elegant symbol of the hotel’s grandeur and grace, presiding over the grounds as Halekulani’s living treasure.

Black and white image of kiawe tree

Tree of Life

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Black and white photo of kiawe tree branches
During the 1930s, Chicagoan Annie Irons spent a whirlwind month in the Hawaiian Islands. She chronicled her adventures in a scrapbook filled with a merry assortment of photographs, ticket stubs, and programs, penning detailed captions in meticulous script. The kiawe captured Iron’s attention, meriting an impromptu photograph: “As I sat on the lawn of the Halekulani one day,” she wrote, “I looked up and was so impressed by the lacy pattern overhead that I tilted my camera upward.”
Black and white image of the bark of a kiawe tree
When 16-year-old Tony Good arrived in Hawai‘i on the SS Lurline, he found it to be the stuff of tropical, teenage dreams. Sojourning for months at a time, Good’s family regularly frequented the islands—and Halekulani, where they enjoyed hosted cocktails and graceful hula performances on the seaside lawn. Nearly 60 years later, Good sees the tree as an emblem of his teenage crush. “I used to hide behind that tree and watch Mamo Howell dance hula every day,” Good confesses. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on.” Years later, Good happened upon a snapshot his father took during one of their stays. In it, an elegant Howell is poised mid-step in dance, and in the background is the profile of a young, love-struck Good, peeking out from behind the kiawe’s trunk.
“In the olden days, it was the men who cleaned the rooms,” says Richard Castillo, who joined Halekulani’s housekeeping staff in 1953. While working the night shift during the late ’50s, Castillo was privy to the evenings’ musical acts, including legendary exotica musician Arthur Lyman, who enthralled crowds with the jungle jazzy sounds of the marimba, xylophone, and wild birdcalls. Castillo often helped Lyman pack up his instruments after the show. “He was a popular guy,” says Castillo, now 86 years old. “He played right there under the tree.”
Black and white photo of kiawe tree
Black and white image of kiawe tree and a band dressed in white on stage
The kiawe remains an iconic element of Halekulani’s proud tradition of Hawaiian music, hula, and cocktails—best taken in at the sunset hour, when all is gilded in gold. Famed hula dancer Kanoe Miller feels sweetly sentimental about the tree, having danced under its majestic boughs for nearly 40 years. “It frames the entertainment, the music, dancing. You have Diamond Head and the sunset, the ocean, so that entire picture is in everyone’s head,” Miller says. “The tree created that feeling, that beautiful feeling.”
Black and white image of bark on kiawe tree framing Diamond Head
When La Mer bartender Henry Kawaiea thinks of the kiawe tree, he invariably thinks of music. For more than three decades, Kawaiea has enjoyed the unique vantage point of his second-story post in the hotel’s historic main building. From it, sweeping views of a moonlit Diamond Head unfold at eye level, and the kiawe’s interior canopy softly glows from the string of lights surrounding the stage. “I’m lucky,” Kawaiea says. “I’ve been able to listen to so many entertainers over the years.” Each evening, the silky notes of Hawaiian music—performed by the likes of the Kahauanu Lake Trio in yesteryear, and Pu‘uhonua Trio today—waft up through the branches, reaching Kawaiea before rising up to the mosaic of stars overhead.
Black and white photo of kiawe tree at night with band on stage, dressed in white
Over three days in August, fine-art photographer Wayne Levin photographed Halekulani’s kiawe tree using large-format film. “The fact that [film] slows you down is both a liability and a benefit, it really depends on what you’re photographing,” he says. “For the tree, film was perfect, because it wasn’t something with a lot of motion. It was something that was really static, and it was better to contemplate each picture.” With his work, Levin says, “I hope that I can reach people and make them see things in a little different way, question their sense of what’s real and what’s not.”
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