U.S. SEAMEN’S HOSPITAL:
OH, IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK!
There is strong evidence to suggest that Kamehameha III commissioned the construction of the two-story stone building in 1833. At the time, Lahaina did not extend much farther north than today’s Dickenson Street, which was then a stream flowing alongside the missionary compound. This building was deliberately situated about a mile from the homes of the missionaries and devout Christian Governor Hoapili.
The King approached a Honolulu merchant to build a house on his property that would cater to visiting sailors as an inn and a store. Kamehameha III also had another purpose in mind: he needed a place to indulge in activities not condoned by the influential missionaries and to be away from their prying eyes. They frowned on the use of “ardent spirits” not to mention keeping the old tradition of a sacred marriage between closely related high chiefs. So it was here the King could meet with his beloved sister, Princess Nahi‘ena‘ena.
By 1841, Joaquin Armas, a Mexican cowboy who was hired as the “King’s bullock catcher,” became landlord of this property in exchange for his services of rounding up cattle that freely roamed the island. The King was able to make a handsome profit from cattle by selling the meat and hides to the visiting whalers as they reprovisioned their ships.
In 1844, the structure was leased to the United States to serve as a hospital for sick and injured seamen, particularly whalers who flocked to these shores until 1860. There was scandalous talk in those days about the doctors collecting fees from the government for patients long since buried. An investigation of those charges was made in 1859, but no official action was taken. When the whaling industry declined during the Civil War, the U.S. Seamen’s Hospital officially closed on September 10, 1862.
The building was leased as a boarding school in 1864, then in 1878, the Bishop Estate took ownership. It has also been used as a private home and a meeting room for civic groups. Today, the property is leased for business use.
Rocks, rubble and four partial walls were all that remained of the old Seamen’s Hospital when Lahaina Restoration Foundation acquired the parcel from Bishop Estate in 1974. Seeking funds for a complete restoration, LRF signed a 20-year lease with Architect Uwe Schulz, who at his own expense offset by favorable tax credits, restored the building in accordance with HABS architectural drawings. Archaeological investigation was done by a team from the Bishop Museum. Restoration of the stone building to its original appearance and the adjacent plantation house was completed in 1982.
“While the stones and mortar of an old building have an intrinsic value and interest of their own, it is the many people who built and used them, and the events that took place in and around them, that give them real historical importance. In this respect, the Seamen’s Hospital has an unusually rich heritage.”
– H. Lockwood and Rossie Frost, “Rendezvous in Lahaina,”
architects’ report for the Restoration and Preservation of the Seamen’s Hospital, 1975