Text by Lisa Yamada | Images by John Hook
There’s something about Mānoa that gets me every time I drive through it. When I was a kid, the neighborhood was the destination for school field trips to Mānoa Falls and family parties at Treetops Restaurant. It always seemed to be rainy and wet, with a slight mist in the air that made my skin feel cool and damp. I remember eyeing the valley’s homes, thinking that many of them must be haunted, shuddering at what might live beneath the creaky wooden shingles of those high, pointed roofs or within the mysterious chimneys (who needs chimneys in Hawai‘i anyway?!).
Twenty years later, I find myself standing in front of one such home that gave me the chills. As an adult, though, I find the shingles charming, and am grateful that the stone and wooden walls housing decades of history have been preserved by patrons who devote themselves to its upkeep. The residence is known as Kūali‘i, named after a prominent O‘ahu chief, and belongs to Sam and Mary Cooke. Together, the couple established nonprofit Mānoa Heritage Center in 1996 to manage the preservation of the 3.5-acre estate, which includes a Native Hawaiian garden and ancient heiau. The house itself dates back more than a hundred years, holding stories of a family history steeped in the stewardship of culture, arts, and the environment. Its grounds are home to flourishing indigenous and endemic plants that date back even further than that, telling the story of voyages across the Pacific by Polynesians, sojourners who brought a bounty of flora and fauna in their canoes as they settled in the islands.
The story of how Kūali‘i became tied to the Cooke family history starts with the missionaries who arrived in 1837. Traveling with them was Amos Starr Cooke and his wife, Juliette Montague. They came as educators, teaching Hawaiian royalty at the Chiefs’ Children’s School, today called Royal School; Amos would later become a cornerstone in Hawai‘i’s sugar industry with the founding of Castle and Cooke, which started as a general store. They had seven children, among them, Charles Montague Cooke, who grew up to found Bank of Hawai‘i and marry Anna Charlotte Rice. She, in turn, shared her love for art that reflected the islands’ multicultural makeup with the people of Hawai‘i by founding what is now referred to as the Honolulu Museum of Art. (Like her great-grandson Sam would do decades later, Anna donated their Beretania Street residence to serve as the site of the museum.)
In 1902, Charles and Anna gifted their son Charles “Monty” Cooke, Jr. and his wife, Lila Lefferts Cooke (born to a Dutch family whose home in New York was also turned into a historic house museum), with the tract of land in Mānoa. What made this property so special was that it was also the location of an ancient Hawaiian heiau, Kūka‘ō‘ō, estimated to be almost 1,000 years old. In 1911, when architects Walter Emory and Marshall Webb were selecting the location for the Cooke’s Tudor-style home and began eyeing the site of the heiau for its expansive views of Honolulu, Monty—who was especially sensitive to Hawaiian culture after being nursed back to health as a child by Hawaiian healer Ka‘aha‘aina Naihe—intervened, keeping the heiau site undisturbed, directing them to build the home behind it instead. In 1970, Monty’s grandson Sam picked up where he left off, this time saving the property from being subdivided by buying back a portion of the land, including the heiau from a developer who had purchased it from a developer. Ensuring the property would remain intact in perpetuity, Sam and Mary listed the home and heiau on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1993, Sam and Mary began working with cultural preservationist Nathan Napoka to restore Kūka‘ō‘ō, which was thought to be used by ancient Hawaiians to appease the gods and encourage food productivity in Mānoa, much of which would have been covered with lo‘i (taro patches) at the time. Today, Kūka‘ō‘ō remains the last intact Hawaiian temple in the ahupua‘a (traditional land division from mountain to ocean) of Waikīkī, and the Mānoa Heritage Center continues to maintain the site as a place of cultural and environmental learning.
Sam and Mary Cooke’s commitments to preservation pervade the narrative of their lives. Sam established the Hawai‘i chapter of The Nature Conservancy, while Mary spent nine years on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Having lived in the historic home for the last 40 years, the couple have dedicated it to a new life after they are gone. Though tours through the home are not currently available, they continue its daily upkeep so that one day, future generations can walk its storied halls, browse Sam’s prized collections of art featuring representations of Hawai‘i rendered between 1840 and 1900, and peruse his numerous books documenting voyages in the Pacific starting with Captain Cooke in 1778. In the meantime, Sam and Mary have already opened the rest of the property for tours so that the public can learn about its ancient heritage and botany.
So, the next time you find yourself driving through Mānoa, remember that there’s always more than meets the eye.
Find Yourself in Mānoa?
- Mānoa Heritage Center offers tours of the garden and heiau Monday through Friday with advanced reservation (tours through the Kūali‘i historic home are not currently available). For more information, call 808-988-1287 or visit manoaheritagecenter.org.
- Stop in for the island’s best cappuccino at Morning Class Coffee, a charming café featuring Hawai‘i-grown pour-over coffee alongside Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Sightglass Coffee selections. Grab a baked good or its signature egg-a-muffin sandwich (like an Egg McMuffin only better) for the road. Find them at 2955 East Mānoa Rd., or online at morningglasscoffee.com.