UH, Portables And The Fire

It would be a gross understatement to say the University of Hawaii is a unique college campus. It is spectacular for a number of reasons.

First, as the late Dr. Harold St. John would point out, it is a botanical garden. He’s the botany professor responsible for putting name tags on all the plants, trees, flowers and shrubs on campus. They even named a building after him on upper campus.

The campus is not as beautiful as it could be for a number of reasons, but probably the main one is funds for maintenance. A beautiful campus costs money.

The architecture on campus, although not coordinated, is wonderful to look at. A drive up East-West Center Road past Kennedy Theatre to Varney Circle reveals some outstanding buildings.

Years ago, having an office on upper campus was always a highly valued perk for faculty and staff, but being assigned an office in the quarry, known as lower campus, was the exact opposite. The lower campus was the home of the ROTC offices, intramurals buildings, coaches offices and athletic fields, Klum Gym and student parking. The strangest feature of the buildings on the lower campus was they were mostly portable and were built on a underground spring, so that during heavy rain it was not uncommon for your assigned portable building to float off its moorings during the night and drift away. Being assigned a portable building for your office was not very prestigious. Consequently, they were scorned by students, faculty and staff.

There were a couple portables on upper campus: a veterans office and a makeshift athletic dormitory where Holmes Hall now sits. A few were even scattered near Bachman Hall. The reason is the University of Hawaii was growing rapidly and capital improvement money was hard to find. The portables were supposed to be temporary but the most permanent building on the UH campus is a temporary one.

The proof is provided by a fire that burned for more than a day on UH Lower Campus Road recently. The fire broke out on a Sunday and caused nearly $1 million in damage. It took 50 firefighters more than a day to extinguish it. Our highly efficient Honolulu Fire Department usually puts out the most stubborn fires in 15-30 minutes. Not to mention the portable building was 30 years old and featured layers of wood, corrugated metal sheeting, paper and tar. And the building didn’t house ROTC or athletic coaches’ offices, it stored fiscal documents for the entire UH system! The portable did its job and protected its contents. Not since Hamilton Library saved its contents from heavy floods several years ago has a building on the UH campus performed so admirably under stress.

The portable building on UH’s Lower Campus Road will probably go down as a “how to” case study on the toughest-to-extinguish fires on Oahu.