Emmy Bertlemann remembers stringing lei flowers while her tutu, Anna Mehau Payne, danced hula. Charles Sanchez recalls using a flashlight to access his locker during the aftermath of a 6.6-magnitude earthquake that shook Hawai‘i Island. And Nowa Condley Triolo still savors the hibachi appetizers once served at the Copper Bar. Since its opening in 1965, Mauna Kea Resort has a become a beloved institution among its guests and employees, many of whom have played and worked here for decades.
“There are so many good memories here,” said a smiling Sanchez, who started as a dishwasher at the hotel in 1976 and is now a friendly, familiar face at the bell desk. “It was so different from working on the plantation where it was just all men … and no wahine.”
When Laurance S. Rockefeller opened the Mauna Kea Resort in 1965, it was the most expensive hotel ever built in Hawai‘i, costing $15 million. But even for a venture capitalist with the means to build anything, anywhere, there were some major infrastructure challenges, namely the lack of roads, electricity, plumbing and water.
No hurdle, however, would discourage the noted conservationist who believed that the buildings should conform to, not intrude on, the natural surroundings of Kauna‘oa Bay. To achieve this, Rockefeller hired a team of experts to oversee his vision come to life. Belt Collins was contracted as site planner and engineer; noted New York-based firm Skidmore Owings Merrill led the architect designs; Davis Allen handled the interior design and golf course architect Robert Trent Jones pioneered a technique of creating soil from lava rock.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) called the open-air resort an architectural feat and praised it for its “restrained detailing and fine spatial sequences.”
When the hotel threw open its doors in 1965, room rates started at a then-exorbitant $43 per night and included a mandatory eating plan. All rooms came with twin beds and plumeria logo-adorned amenities and no television could be heard or seen. In his opening remarks to guests on July 24, Rockefeller said that he wanted to “express the hope and faith that all of us now here and all who come as future guests of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel will leave in some way renewed in body and spirit.”
Indeed the magic of Mauna Kea is shared and experienced openly among its guests, including Triolo, who has been visiting the resort for 43 years and counting. “I remember flying into Hilo—no airport in Kona yet—and taking the bus to the Mauna Kea,” she noted. “I remember dancing with my father as the piano was played during dinner at the Pavilion.”
Soon after its grand opening, the resort was not only recognized for its rectilinear design but also the fact that the property doubled as an art gallery, unheard of in those days except in the toniest of European hotels. Rockefeller brought in artwork from India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Melanesia and Polynesia. He also commissioned the women of Kawaiaha‘o Church to make 30 Hawaiian quilts, with more than a million stitches each. For the grounds, he brought in 200,000 plants of more than 200 varieties.
Rockefeller’s idea was to expose the West to the ancient aesthetics of the East and have Mauna Kea serve as the portal to the spirit and wisdom of Eastern inspiration. In his forward in "The Art of Mauna Kea," Rockefeller wrote: “We decided to incorporate Asian and Pacific arts into the design of the Mauna Kea in such a way that the art could become, just as the elements of nature would become, a constant influence.”
The 1,600 pieces spread throughout the resort represent 800 years of history, from the Seated Buddha at the top of the grand stairway and Thai winged lions at the Beachfront Wing, to the bronze sculpture of birds in the entry circle and lacquered wooden drum from a Japanese temple that dates back to the 19th century.
“What was, is” seems the appropriate mantra for Mauna Kea. After all, even after a $150 million face-lift due to major structural damage during the 2006 earthquake, the hotel has maintained its retro charm with its bright orange elevator doors and its familiar blue tiles at the front entry way.
“I brought my husband here for our honeymoon in 1991 and he has joined the Mauna Kea family as well,” Triolo said. “Our two children have been raised here—now 20 and 17—and they consider this their home as well. I have so many, many happy memories here. I’ve made big decisions while walking the beach, and this place has always restored my body and soul.”