Hilo feels like a sleepy South Seas port off the pages of Somerset Maugham. The town climbs a slope leading up to the volcano, Mauna Kea, and looks out over Hilo Bay. Fan-like crowns of palm trees wave over corrugated tin roofs. Rows of wooden storefronts facing the harbor project an improvised rawness, as though the carpenters had just put away their hammers and saws. You can almost smell the pine resin.

As for Hilo’s more substantial buildings, they exist in a kind of aesthetic time-warp—Haili Church, the Classic Revival Federal Building, the Renaissance Revival Kaikodo Building, the vaguely Moorish Palace Theater. Architecture is always so much more than just building. To “read” architecture is to read history. Hawaii is often thought of as a paradise, but paradise is timeless, without a history. And Hawaii’s...


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