Ala Moana Center turns the big 5-0

Published: Aug. 12, 2009 at 5:36 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 12, 2009 at 6:22 PM HST
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Donald Graham
Donald Graham
Dwight Yoshimura
Dwight Yoshimura

By Howard Dashefsky - bio | email

HONOLULU (KHNL) - It's a place we all visit to meet friends, grab a meal,  buy some gifts, or just hang out. Now Ala Moana Center is celebrating it's 50th anniversary.

It's a retail giant sitting on what is widely believed to be one of the most valuable parcels of land in the state, but that wasn't always the case.

In 1884, in accordance with the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop,  the 50-acre swamp site was put up for sale, because it was deemed unproductive land.

A buyer finally emerged a quarter century later when Walter Dillingham  purchased the land for 25,000 bucks. His Hawaiian Dredging Company eventually backfilled the swampland with coral he removed from other nearby projects.

And in 1948, the company announced plans to build a shopping complex.

"I thought it was a great idea" said then project manager Donald Graham.

Now at the age of 94, Graham can still sketch out plans and visualize the job, just as he did more than 60 years ago.

"I remember everything about all the things that we did."

A decade after breaking ground, on august 13th 1959, the shopping center opened for business.  80 stores on two levels,  anchored by Sears on the ewa side, and Shirokiya on the Diamond Head side, two of 11 original tenants who still call Ala Moana Center home.

"Truly, to have the foresight and really the cooperation of community at that time to at least take that gamble" said Ala Moana general manager Dwight Yoshimura.

"It was certainly a wonderful thing that we're all benefiting from today."

Over the years the center would go through numerous owners, and major renovations. Island institution Liberty House would eventually give way to Macy's. 

In 1998 upscale retailer Neiman Marcus opened for business on the makai side of the center. Ten years later, Hawaii's first full line Nordstrom store would frame the mauka side.

Today as the center prepares for it's golden anniversary, it ranks as the world's largest outdoor shopping center, and consistently places among the top three highest grossing malls in the United States. Amazing when you consider it all began on a piece of swamp land, that nobody wanted.

"I'm very thankful to be part of the history of the center. I'm very thankful that the forefathers, the Dillingham people built it for one thing" said Yoshimura.

"It was a fine accomplishment" said Graham. "I would love to live it again."