See the historic sites of Lahaina before and after the

The landmarks of Lahaina have been badly damaged and restored before. Preservationists hope to rebuild

August 12, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

An aerial view of a burned building in the historic Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Thursday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)Comment

Plantation-era wooden buildings turned to ashes. Landmarks made from coral, lava rock and concrete hollowed out by flames. A once-quaint historic street blackened and wrecked.

The wildfire that ravaged Maui this week, killing at least 80, decimated homes and incinerated cultural sites in the historic town of Lahaina. As rescue crews continue working and more than 14,000 people face displacement, the focus there is on helping those who lost their homes, treating the injured and locating the hundreds still missing.

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Adding to the devastation is the loss of some of Lahaina’s culturally rich places, spots that visitors to Maui remember and locals had painstakingly preserved. Over the last 200 years, most of them have been damaged or destroyed – by the strong Kauaula wind, by accidental fires, by time – and rebuilt.

That could happen again, meaning the precious sites may not be lost forever.

“I know we’re going to rebuild, and I know the entire town is going to come together,” said Kimberly Flook, deputy executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

Before and after: Front Street. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The physical manifestation of the many stories of Lahiana have been lost, but the stories themselves are not,” she said. “The stories have not gone anywhere. The culture lives in the community.”

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The town is rich in royal Hawaiian history and home to remnants of the missionary era — a place sometimes called Maui’s crown jewel or the colonial Williamsburg of the Pacific. Taking stock of the wreckage there was only just beginning. Flook’s organization was making assumptions about buildings’ fates based on videos and photos, satellite images and the path of the fire.

Ticking through a list of the town’s historic sites meant ticking through a list of places that were likely mostly destroyed, from a Chinese hall that once served as a social center for immigrants to an erstwhile jail that rounded up rowdy sailors for infractions like drunkenness and adultery.

“It was basically a matchbox waiting to go up,” Lee Anne Wong, executive chef at Papa’aina at the now-decimated Pioneer Inn, said of Lahaina’s historic district. “It was all old wood buildings that had been dried out in the sun.”

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Wooden structures – the Wo Hing Museum and Cookhouse, the cell blocks and gatehouse at the Old Lahaina Prison – are presumed to be gone. The Waiola Church, which recently celebrated its 200th anniversary, was engulfed in flames. The Lahaina Harbor was charred and blackened, wreckage floating in the water.

Lahaina historic districts map

Sources: Maui County, Planet Labs PBC

Photos: Eric Broder Van Dyke/Getty Images,

B. David Cathell/Alamy Stock Photo, Atomazul/Shutterstock,

YinYang/Getty Images, Crbellette/Shutterstock,

Courtesy of Lahaina News


Lahaina historic districts map

Sources: Maui County, Planet Labs PBC

Photos: Eric Broder Van Dyke/Getty Images, B. David Cathell/Alamy Stock Photo, Atomazul/Shutterstock,

YinYang/Getty Images, Crbellette/Shutterstock, Courtesy of Lahaina News


Stone and concrete buildings – the Baldwin Home, the oldest house on Maui; the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which housed a heritage museum; the Masters Reading Room, an 1800s club for ship captains – may have their walls left. Made of coral, lava rock and concrete, such historical buildings often had wooden floors, roofs and other parts, Flook said. She saw a video of Baldwin Home on fire and satellite images showed the courthouse’s coral block walls left standing.

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The restaurant Fleetwood’s – which stood on the merchant site that served as the town’s “center of life” in the Plantation Era, Flook said – was reduced to charred walls and rubble.

The destruction is “pretty devastating,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, a University of Buffalo architecture professor who briefly lived on Maui in the mid-2000s.

Powered by hurricane-force winds, the wildfires on Maui nearly impossible to prepare for or combat. In Hawaii, hurricanes and floods pose more common threats.

“We certainly knew that if a fire started, we were ripe for an issue, but natural fires weren’t a major concern,” Flook said. “In terms of climate change, we were way more focused on sea rise and king tides and tsunamis.”

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Sometimes, buildings can be moved or raised in efforts to guard against extreme weather. But that often doesn’t work for buildings of cultural significance, which are tied to a specific location and derive their meaning from their context, Rajkovich said.

And on the whole, little can be done to protect buildings caught in the path of such a catastrophic blaze, especially wooden ones, experts said.

Before and after: Lahaina coastline. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Based on the images I’ve seen, it seems pretty hard to imagine what could possibly protect a building in this context,” said Daniel Barber, head of the University of Technology Sydney’s architecture department.

The cultural loss is steep. Lahaina holds architectural and historic significance, and its buildings speak to the town’s Hawaiian origins, said Bill Chapman, head of the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

He is working with colleagues on a book about architectural conservation that was supposed to dive into Lahaina’s history. Now, it will require a caveat.

“We’re going to have to have a dark box in there,” he said, “to explain that Lahaina isn’t what it was.”

Most of the town’s landmarks had been painstakingly restored at least once over the decades. The Waiola Church, which had celebrated its 200th anniversary in May, had been destroyed by weather or accidental fires and rebuilt four times before: in 1858, 1894, 1947 and 1951.

And in 1919, a fire broke out that destroyed part of Lahaina. What was built in its place, Flook said, became “part of the flavor of the town,” an area people loved.

“We’ve rebuilt fallen structures from the ground up before, so it’s not impossible to redo it,” said Flook.

When they can return to town, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation staff will begin surveying the damage, starting on insurance claims and FEMA paperwork. Buildings with some stable bones left could possibly be restored; the wooden ones would have to be fully recreated, Flook said.

Eventually, preservationists will likely solicit donations and start making plans to rebuild.

For now, the focus remains on humanitarian aid.

Wong, the chef who worked at the nearly 120-year-old Pioneer Inn, described community efforts to help displaced people and coordinate donations of supplies. She was working with a group to make lunches for 2,000 people and dinners for another 2,000.

“The priority is life, is our neighbors and our friends and our family. … I can always build another restaurant,” Wong said. “We need to find safety and shelter and food and water. That is all anybody is thinking about.”

Natalie B. Compton contributed to this report.


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