Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Stories from the Construction of the Laie Temple

Guest Post: Stories from the Construction of the Laie Temple

By: Shawn Young - June 28, 2011

Shawn Young comes to Keepa after landing on February’s post about the man-eating shark caught at Laie by Hamana Kalili, subject of Shawn’s work-in-progress. A website for that biography is under construction (this page is blank today, but I’m preserving the link for readers who check back in a few weeks). Shawn’s personal website includes his published account of Kalili’s wave as the origin of the shaka sign.

Give him a good welcome, and maybe we can coax him to share further stories of Kalili or Hawaii, or to announce here the publication of the biography. — AEP


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 Pacific islands, located about a week’s journey by steam ship from San Francisco. He had been in Hawaii from 1854–1857 while a teenager as a missionary. A few years later, in 1864, he was sent there again as part of a delegation from the Church to straighten out the debacle being conducted 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 his companions Elder Reed Smoot and Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley to accompany him on a private stroll nearby to take in the evening air. From the vantage point they would have enjoyed as they left the chapel, the sky would have been dark overhead, with few 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 would have been spread out majestically beyond the cane fields that filled the space between and extended far off to the north and south on either side, and the Koolau Mountains, their awesome steepness accentuated by the night darkness, would have embraced the whole setting from behind. As Elder Smoot later recalled, “I never saw a more beautiful night in all my life.” And it was then that President Smith, in what appeared to be a spontaneous motion, 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.”

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.

About fifteen months after the dedication, the groundbreaking ceremony for the temple was held in October 1916. 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 (whose exploits have been discussed elsewhere on this site) and David Haili — were hired to be the foremen. And about 20 strong local men, including Hamana’s brother, Gustave Kaleohano, were also brought on to help. For the duration of construction, they worked ten-hour days, six days a week, and were paid a salary of $1.25 per day.

Work on the temple soon commenced, but before excavation and construction could get under way, the existing chapel — which for many years had been the largest building on windward Oahu, measuring 90 feet on its longest side and 30 feet across the front — needed to be moved off 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 accomplishments of engineering, inventiveness, and simple muscle power. Moving the chapel was a remarkable feat, and 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 4-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 is currently in its place.)

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 the river beds in the mountains nearby.

Building a temple in Hawaii presented some unique challenges. For one, because of the volcanic geology of the islands, limestone and granite (as had been used to build previous temples) was not available. The architects decided that the most effective substitute would be cast stone and cement. 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 a limited commodity, as well. 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. And as the problem of finding wood continued, a crisis gradually developed.

It’s said that eventually Ralph Woolley, the project manager, knelt in prayer and asked for a solution. And soon after, the weather turned rough and a particularly bad storm blew in. During the course of it, a large freighter, which was a rare sight on that side of the island, somehow went off course and became stranded on a reef just off shore from Laie.

Some have speculated about where the ship stranding actually occurred (some people have said it was off Laie Point, and others have said that maybe 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, which is identified by the stretch of beach just north of Laie Bay.

When the weather began to break, some of the fishermen from Laie went out to offer help. The captain and the shipping company, fearful that the ship would become wrecked, offered the men from Laie a trade: help them offload their cargo, and they could have it all. And the cargo they were carrying? Wood. And lots of it. All hands turned out, and as the its load lightened and the tide came in, the ship 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.

There are many other minor anecdotes that are told about the temple construction. For example, it’s said that 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, resulting in a tremendous delay. When one of the foremen, Hamana Kalili, who was known for his great strength, saw what was happening and came over, he 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, so to speak, 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.

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, and 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 would stop to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and inspiring character of its exterior and grounds. During World War II, soldiers would go 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 20th-century modern style, appropriated for and translated to a Pacific Island context. Its design was new and bold for the time it was built, and it has continued to endure for almost a century since. In 2009 renovations were begun and it 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 elegance and simplicity.

If you go to Laie today, the temple is the centerpiece of the community. If you go to the genealogy library on the temple grounds, you can see Hamana Kalili rendered as a statue sculpted by the young 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 Laie you can also find remnants of the incident with the ship. If you go to the Hukilau Cafe, just down the road past the First Ward chapel (their French toast breakfast is regarded as the best in the area), across the street you’ll find what people say is the oldest house 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.

Photographs (all courtesy BYU-Hawaii Library Archives), top to bottom:


Moving the chapel down the hill.
An aerial view of Laie in the 1920s.
The crowd that attended the temple dedication.
The temple under construction (two views).
Avard Fairbank’s sculpture of Lehi blessing his youngest son, Joseph. Hamana Kalili modeled as Joseph.



  1. Awesome piece of history excellently told. Thank you. The temple there is indeed a place of peace and beauty.

    Comment by Cliff — June 28, 2011 @ 8:42 am

  2. Thanks, Shawn. I wonder if you would be amenable to fielding a question about the temple. Before 1921-22, the temples were considered special locations for healing, with dedicated temple healers and often days set apart for healing. I’ve only found a little bit of evidence that this was the case in Arizona and haven’t seen any for Hawaii (though to be honest I don’t know much about the Hawaii temple at all). Have you possibly seen any evidence for healing in the Hawaii Temple? Also, if this is too much of a thread-jack, Ardis, feel free to remove the comment.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 28, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  3. No thread-jack at all, J. If Shawn can’t answer immediately, maybe he’ll keep an eye out for you as he continues his own research.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  4. I’ve noticed accounts in the Utah era of moving chapels and other buildings — the entire United Order compound in Kingston was moved from its original location to the present site, for instance — rather than tearing down and rebuilding. It’s interesting to me to see this done elsewhere with this Hawaiian chapel, especially since Shawn found a photograph of it actually being done.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 9:39 am

  5. Thank you for this wonderfully told story. My father was one of those World War II ‘…soldiers [who] would go there to relax, reflect, and enjoy a respite from duty.’ Actually, he was a sailor and was baptized at the temple in 1945. Dad is now 91 and I saw the photo of that event at his birthday party two weeks ago.

    Comment by charlene — June 28, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  6. What a great connection, charlene! This must be for you almost what it’s like for me to look at my parents’ wedding picture, or read an account of an ancestor’s early life, and know what’s going to happen before they do. (That’s probably too garbled for sense. I’m so tired. But I was very glad to read your comment, anyway.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

  7. This is nice research and writing, illustrated with interesting photos. Thank you for the post.

    Comment by Justin — June 29, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  8. Thanks for the good comments, everyone. I’m glad you all enjoyed the story.

    To J. Stapley…I have not heard anything like what you’re describing in my research. I’ll call one of my old friends over there who knows a lot about the temple’s history and ask her. If I find anything out, I’ll let you know.

    Thanks again for the good words and thoughts.

    Comment by Shawn Young — June 29, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  9. Ok, I’m really late in discovering the “ninnie” world, but . . .
    was really interested in this piece about the Laie Temple. In a comment by “Charlene” she says her dad was baptized at the temple in 1945. This is the second time I’ve heard of military converts being baptized there. Where was the font? Is there a way for me to contact “Charlene?” I would love to see that photo she refers to. –Mark James, Regional Church History Advisor (Hawaii)

    Comment by Mark James — June 10, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

  10. Mark, I’ll send an email to Charlene at the address she left with the comment, and ask her, if she’s willing, to contact you. Let’s hope the address is still valid.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 10, 2015 @ 7:54 pm