Tropical Modernism: The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Turns 50

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A Milestone for Hawaii

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, one of the world’s most renowned resorts, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The hotel’s strong, modernist design reflects the dauntless vision of its founder, Laurance S. Rockefeller, who engaged SOM to create the first resort on the rugged coastline of Hawaii’s Big Island.

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Rugged Terrain

Before the arrival of sun-seeking vacationers, Hawaii’s Kohala Coast was home to a sprawling cattle ranch. Beneath the snow-capped volcanic peak of Mauna Kea, this dramatic coastal landscape, blanketed by vast expanses of black lava, is accented by a crescent-shaped white sand beach. Touring the island in 1960, Rockefeller chose this remote location as the site for his future resort.

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Paradise Planned

To bring his vision to life, Rockefeller assembled a powerhouse design team. Having enlisted SOM to create a hotel that would epitomize modern luxury, he sought out Robert Trent Jones, a prolific designer of golf courses, to lay out 18 holes along the oceanfront. Yet the site, for all its beauty, posed serious challenges. To create the resort, the team had to overcome the complete lack of infrastructure, including roads, electricity, and fresh water.

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Rooms With A View

The SOM design team, led by Chuck Bassett and Marc Goldstein, developed several possible schemes for the hotel, as they searched for a design that would complement the site's beauty. Ultimately, Rockefeller selected a low-rise, terraced building, sited along the contour of the hillside overlooking the beach to provide exceptional views from 150 guest rooms on three floors, and expansive enough to contain all of the hotel's facilities within a single structure.

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Lush Life

SOM's design breaks down the boundary between architecture and nature, bringing the island's tropical vegetation into the heart of the building. The hotel's terraced levels enclose lush interior gardens, which are staggered around a central atrium, open to the sky.

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Ground Breaking

Preparing the site was no small task, requiring the excavation of 60 acres of lava. Building materials arrived by barge, including 5,000 square feet of marble, a mile of wood, and 20,000 cubic yards of concrete. With the hotel still under construction, the Mauna Kea Golf Course debuted in December 1964.

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A Superlative Achievement

In July 1965, Laurance Rockefeller presided over the hotel's grand opening. At a cost of $15 million, the luxury resort became the most expensive hotel ever built. Esquire magazine called it "a compendium of superlatives... Nobody but a Rockefeller can spend that kind of money, and nobody but Laurance Rockefeller could have spent it with such superb taste."

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Destination of Choice

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was received as an immediate triumph. Within months of its opening, Esquire proclaimed it to be "the greatest resort hotel on earth," and named it as one of the three best hotels in the world. It also garnered prestigious design accolades, including the 1967 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. This made Mauna Kea the first building in Hawaii to receive this distinction, and also one of the first hotels to do so. SOM's contemporary design would inspire countless other resorts, becoming a model for luxury developments around the world.

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Encounters With Art

A priceless collection of Pacific and Asian art is on display throughout the hotel, consisting of more than 1,600 museum-quality pieces gathered by Laurance Rockefeller and SOM interior designer Davis Allen.

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Exalted Spaces

The hotel's heroic, elegant proportions inspire accolades often reserved for architecture of a loftier nature. Architectural historian Nicholas Adams describes SOM's building as "like a Buddhist temple in concrete. From the garden below the Promenade it has a kind of grandeur, and in the lower colonnade the monumental cruciform piers and wooden roof create a stillness that recalls the cloister of a Romanesque abbey or religious retreat rather than a hotel.”

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Celebrating A Legacy

Throughout 2015, the hotel has celebrated its anniversary with a series of festivities, including a grand ceremony in July, which saw the resort showered with 50,000 orchid petals. Fifty years since opening to critical acclaim, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel remains one of the world's most sought-after destinations. Its singular design grounds the hotel's legacy, and promises to enchant visitors for generations to come.