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Fate of Naalehu Theater in limbo, even as it deteriorates

Updated: 
March 13, 2017 - 12:05am

The southernmost theater in the country sits abandoned, as it has for more than a decade.

It’s unclear what the future of the Naalehu Theater, the plantation-era building known to passing drivers for its still-vibrant paint job, will hold, but many residents aren’t optimistic.

“It doesn’t have too much time left,” said Naalehu resident Glen Winterbottom. “It’s going to be a big loss if it goes, and it’s not necessary to let it go.”

“It’s been going on for so long that people have given up on it,” he said.

“The whole thing over there is just a mess,” said Joe Demoruelle, who managed the theater from 1980 to 2006 with wife, Sandra. He described the situation as “demolition by neglect.”

The theater building went up in 1925, constructed by the Hutchinson Sugar Company. Its 10,237 square feet contain three separate sections.

For decades, it hosted live performances as well as movie screenings.

“It used to be quite popular,” said Winterbottom.

The leaky roof of the theater now has a large hole that lets water “pour in” every time it rains, Demoruelle said, and the inside has been vandalized.

Community attempts to save the building by listing it on state and national registers of historic places have been blocked by the property’s owner.

“We sent letters to them, (from) the senior citizens, the school, and nobody cares,” Demoruelle said.

The theater property is owned by 300 Corporation, a division of the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation. The parent foundation is a nonprofit that is a major landowner in Hawaii. Its offices are based in Honolulu and Maryland.

According to the nonprofit database GuideStar, 300 Corp’s mission statement is “to acquire, hold title to, and collect income from properties, remitting the entire amount of such income, less expenses, to its stockholder, which is an organization exempt from income tax under section 501(A) of the internal revenue code.”

It is unclear how the theater property is collecting income, as it is no longer leased out.

A message left with the Hawaii offices of the Weinberg Foundation was not returned.

“I don’t think they’ll rent it to anybody now,” Demoruelle said. “I don’t think anything will happen there.”

One attempt to list the theater as a historic property was made in 2005. At the time, representatives from the state historic preservation division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources visited the site and determined that it was eligible for listing.

“In order to place something on the state (list), on the lower level — it can be local significance,” said Ross Stephenson, former keeper of the Hawaii Register of Historic Places. “It doesn’t have to be ‘Teddy Roosevelt slept here.’”

“The Naalehu Theater, like the Akebono (in Pahoa, which was destroyed by fire in January), like some in Hakalau — they were sources of community pride, and they’re certainly worthy structures by and large,” Stephenson said.

The theater was scheduled to be considered for listings on both the state and national register during a regular meeting of the Hawaii Historic Places Review Board.

In June 2005, Alvin Awaya, president of 300 Corp, sent State Historic Preservation Officer Peter Young a letter stating that the company “respectfully objects” to the listings and would request a contested case hearing if the listings was not rejected.

The next year, when the roof started leaking, Demoruelle reached out to the Honolulu offices of the Weinberg Foundation.

“Our lease that we had with them says that they are not responsible for any repairs; it’s all up to you to fix it,” he said. At one point, he said, the theater had received a $25,000 grant from Hawaii County for repairs and restoration.

“We had put in new bathrooms, new electrical (wiring),” Demoruelle said. “I tried patching the roof, but I couldn’t patch this one. … they gave us 30 days to close because of liability.”

Another tenant in the building who rented the concession area stayed for another few months.

“That was in 2006,” Demoruelle said. “So it’s been sitting for 11 years, and boy, you can really tell.”

300 Corp also owns the property adjacent to the theater, site of the former Island Market. The market, Naalehu’s only grocery store, closed in 2015 after 18 years of business. Will and Grace Filipino Variety Store is still located on the adjacent property.

In 2010, Honolulu magazine listed the theater as one of “Hawaii’s Most Endangered Historic Sites.”

At the time, the magazine noted repairs that included a new roof and ceiling, new gutters, and repairs to the foundation, at a cost of about $150,000. About 30 people had volunteered to help with the work, and that paperwork had once again been submitted to give the theater official historic status, this time as a National Historic Landmark.

Nothing happened.

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation describes demolition by neglect as an owner “intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair.”

“Property owners using demolition by neglect as a tactic to work around preservation laws will often argue that the prohibitive cost of repairs and deferred maintenance creates an economic hardship.”

Stephenson, who is active in preservation efforts in Honokaa, said there is often a “general lack of understanding” about the benefits of historic preservation in Hawaii.

“What is really good about listing these kinds of properties on the National Register is it becomes a national community resource, eligible for financial resources and grants,” he said. “Then it gets listed on the internet. That helps draw people to Naalehu and it brings revenue.”

Because the theater is a commercial building, it would also be eligible for 20 percent federal reimbursement for approved repairs.

Demoruelle said there would likely be significant environmental issues to address if the theater did collapse.

“That whole projector room is lined in asbestos because it had to be fireproof,” he said.

In a letter to the editor, Winterbottom suggested that Hawaii County lawmakers use the legal condemnation process to remove the building from 300 Corp ownership, or create a resolution that the owners restore the building.

Hawaii County Councilwoman Maile David, who represents Ka‘u, could not be reached for comment.

For Winterbottom, losing the theater would be more than just a physical loss for Naalehu, erasing part of its plantation history.

“There’s no real plantation buildings that have survived,” he said. “The Ace hardware is actually the old plantation office, but you can’t tell; it’s been remodeled so much.”

“Everyone I talk to says Joe, what’s happening with the theater,” Demoruelle said. “The whole community wants it to be saved, I’m sure, but not over in Honolulu.”

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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