Dear President Albright,

In 1915, Joseph F. Smith, nephew of the late Prophet and acting President of the Church, was in Laie on church business.  It was at least his fourth trip to the remote group of Pacific islands, which were located about a week’s journey by steam ship from San Francisco.  President Smith had been in Hawaii from 1854-1857 as a missionary at age 15.  A few years later, in 1864, he was sent there again as part of a delegation from the Church to straighten out the debacle caused by Walter Murray Gibson at the Palawai settlement.  And, finally, he lived in Laie from 1884-1891 while in exile to evade federal prosecution for polygamy.  (At the time, the Hawaiian Islands were a sovereign kingdom, outside of the formal jurisdiction of the United States.)


It’s said that, after a church gathering held on Tuesday, June 1, 1915, President Smith asked Elder Reed Smoot and Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley to accompany him on a stroll to take in the evening air.  From the vantage point that they would have enjoyed as they left the chapel, the sky would have been dark overhead, with only a few dim lights in the country village just down the hill below.  Cool ocean breezes would have blown lightly, rustling fronds on palm trees, and the sounds of night birds and chirping geckos would have been heard here and there.  Looking out from where they walked and talked the ocean spread out majestically beyond the cane fields that filled the space between, and which extended far off to the north and south on either side.  Behind them, the Koolau Mountains, with their awesome steepness accentuated by the night darkness, embraced the whole setting and completed the picture that they were encircled in. 

As Elder Smoot later recalled, “I never saw a more beautiful night in all my life.”  It was then that President Smith, in what seemed to be a spontaneous gesture, said that he felt impressed to dedicate the place where they stood as the site for a temple.  He asked Elder Smoot and Bishop Nibley to kneel with him, and as Elder Smoot later wrote, “I have heard President Smith pray hundreds of times…but never in my life did I hear such a prayer.  The very ground seemed to be sacred, and he seemed as if he was talking face to face with the Father.  I cannot and never will forget it if I live a thousand years.”

A Temple Site is Dedicated

The temple for which President Smith dedicated the ground that night was to be the fifth that the church would build, and the first to be completed outside of Utah (the other four were in St. George, Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake).  Its cost was estimated at about $215,000, and at the time some may have wondered why such a peculiar and remarkable building should be built so far out in the country rather than in Honolulu.  It actually is an interesting question, as at the time the Church’s main activity was centered in the capital city, while the remote outpost of Laie served largely as an industrial agricultural operation, mission headquarters, and country retreat.

Fifteen months after the dedication, in October 1916, the groundbreaking ceremony for the temple was held.  Hyrum Pope, a young architect from Salt Lake City who, with his partner, Harold Burton, designed the new temple, provided general on-the-ground technical oversight during much of the project.  Ralph Woolley, son of mission president and plantation manager Samuel E. Woolley, filled the role of project manager.  Two local men-Hamana Kalili (regarded as the “big fisherman” of Laie) and David Haili-were hired to be the foremen.  And about twenty strong local men, including Hamana’s brother, Gustave Kaleohano, were also brought on to help.  For the duration of construction, the men worked ten-hour days, six days a week, and were paid a salary of $1.25 per day.

Moving the Chapel

Before construction of the new temple could get under way, the existing chapel-which for many years had been the largest building on windward Oahu, measuring ninety feet on its longest side and thirty feet across the front-needed to be moved off of the hill to a site down below.  In those days, there were no trucks or cranes to move a structure that big, and all the work was done through feats of engineering, inventiveness, and simple muscle power.  Kids and adults alike watched in amazement over those few days as the huge chapel made its journey to the new site.


In moving the chapel, the crew first used jacks to lift the nine-ton building off its foundation and put timbers underneath it. Then, using tackle, ropes, horses, and two rows of three-foot-wide, four-inch steel pipe placed on tracks of solid timbers laid before each side of the building, they pulled and pushed the huge structure down the hill.  (Some sources have said that 55-gallon drums were used to roll the building, but a later paraphrasing of Kalili’s own retelling of the story states that four-inch pipes were used.)  When the chapel reached level ground at the bottom of the hill, the men turned the building along a new course and rolled it over to its new site, where it stood until it burned down during renovations on July 11, 1940.  (The parking lot of the Laie First Ward chapel currently occupies the place.)

Building the Temple- Timber Needed

With the temple site completely clear and the chapel relocated down below, the ground was excavated with pick axes, shovels, and dynamite, and a foundation was made with rocks hauled from river beds in the mountains nearby.

The temple in Laie was the first temple built outside of North America, and building it presented unique challenges.  For one, because of the volcanic geology of the Hawaiian Islands, limestone and granite (which had been used to build earlier temples in Utah and Canada) was not available.  The architects decided that the most effective substitute would be cast stone (i.e., concrete).  In addition, perhaps due to the United States’ escalating involvement in World War I, timber, which was needed for scaffolding, structural supports, and a variety of other architectural features, was also a limited commodity.  (At times, the scarcity for suitable wood made the need acute.)  On one occasion, construction was brought to a standstill because wood could simply not be procured.  A crisis ensued.


It’s said that Ralph Woolley, the project manager, eventually knelt in prayer and asked for a solution.  Soon after, the weather turned rough, and a particularly bad storm blew in.  During the course of the storm, a large freighter, which was a rare sight on that side of the island, somehow veered off course and became stranded on a reef just offshore from Laie.  There has been some disagreement and uncertainty about where the ship was actually stranded (some people have said it was off Laie Point, and others have said that it was near Goat Island), but near the end of his life, Gustave Kaleohano, brother of Hamana Kalili, briefly remarked that the stranding of the ship happened off of Malaikahana, just north of Laie Bay.


When the weather began to break, Hamana Kalili and some of the fishermen from Laie went out to offer help to the stranded ship.  The captain and the shipping company, fearful that the ship would become wrecked, offered the men from Laie a trade: help them offload the ship’s cargo and, in exchange, they could have it all.  And what was the cargo that the ship was carrying?  Wood…and lots of it.  All hands turned out to help, and as the ship’s load lightened and the tide came in, it lifted off the reef and was able to escape to safety.  The lumber was floated into shore, brought up onto the beach, and then transported up to the temple site.  Before long the work was underway again.

First-Hand Accounts

There are other anecdotes from the temple construction, many of which were recorded by the young sculptor Avard Fairbanks, who witnessed many of them first hand as he created the baptismal font, friezes, and other sculpture for the temple.  For example, one day as the crew was hard at work, there was a wagon loaded with cement that became bogged down in the mud.  The horses and men could not pull it out, and they faced the task of having to unload the entire thing, which would have resulted in a tremendous delay.  When Hamana Kalili, who was one of the foremen and who was known for his great size and strength, saw what was happening, he came over and said, “Hey, you fellows, you get out of the way!  Let me handle this!  Now, when I tell you to get the horses going, you just get them to giddy-up!”  He gave the go-ahead, and as the horses pulled and struggled, Hamana put his shoulder to the wheel and literally lifted the wagon out of the mud.  Everyone who witnessed the feat was amazed, and it would be a safe guess to say that the story was told and retold around the community in the weeks that followed.

Another story told by Fairbanks occurred one day during a break in the construction work.  There was a judo exhibition and the Japanese champion challenged anyone from the audience.  Without any hesitation, Hamana Kalili accepted, and he stepped forward into the ring.  The Judo expert started out confidently, trying one maneuver after another on the big fisherman, but it was all to no effect.  Hamana eventually grabbed him by the seat of the pants, held him out at arms length, and let the wrestler swing arms and legs about like a spider.  It simply wasn’t a match.  The audience had howled and shrieked in hysteria.

In all, construction of the temple took about three years.  It was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1919.  Joseph F. Smith, who had dedicated the ground, had passed away the year before, so the final dedication of the building was performed by Heber J. Grant, who had stepped up to fill the role left open by President Smith’s passing.  Hundreds of members of the church and other interested people rode the train from Honolulu up around Kaena Point and across the North Shore to Laie to see the new temple and to attend the dedication.


The temple soon became a place where people frequently stopped to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and inspiring character of its exterior and grounds.  During World War II, soldiers went there to relax, reflect, and enjoy a respite from duty.  Today, the building itself is considered a remarkable one: a beautifully rendered example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive early twentieth-century modern style, appropriated for and translated to a Pacific Island context.  Its design was new and bold for the time at which it was built, and it has continued to endure for almost a century since.  In 2009 renovations were begun, and the temple reopened again in late 2010.  The restoration work was faithful to the original design and style, and the building continues to be a great example of early modern simplicity and elegance.


If you go to Laie today, the temple is the centerpiece of the community.  If you visit the genealogy library on the temple grounds, you can see Hamana Kalili rendered as a statue sculpted by Avard Fairbanks in 1918, where it stands adjacent to the building. Hamana modeled as Joseph being blessed under the hands of his father, Lehi.  And in the town you can still find remnants of the incident with the ship: if you go to the Hukilau Cafe (their French toast breakfast is regarded as the best in the area), just down the road past the First Ward chapel, across the street you’ll find a house that people say is the oldest in town.  And if you could look inside the walls, it’s said that you’d find some of the leftover wood from that ship that became stranded on the reef.  The inadvertent treatment with salt water and subsequent curing in the sun after it was salvaged from the ocean made it resistant to termites, and today it still stands while other houses from its time have long since rotted away.


Shawn Young


(Shawn Young’s new book about Hamana Kalili, a famous church and community leader in Laie, will be released soon; for more information go to