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Crafting the Polynesian Cultural Center

Scholars say the PCC is a testament to Polynesian building styles, techniques, resources and landscaping

Old photos of the PCC found in BYUH archives.
Photo by Joseph Ariono

The Polynesian Cultural Center has a rich history that dates back to the dreams of two men who wanted to improve the lives of Pacific islanders, according to Laura F. Willes’ book, “Miracle in the Pacific.” However, Willes and scholars emphasize how the local men and women were the ones who ensured the project’s success. They performed the manual labor and brought expert knowledge of building methods from their own islands, which they used to give each village a high level of authenticity.

The two men mentioned in Willes’ book, Elders Matthew Cowley and Edward L. Clissold were both deeply involved with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Pacific and were committed to advancing the cultural, economic and spiritual development of the region.

Alice C. Pack, in her book “Building Missionaries in Hawaii,” writes that Elder Cowley and Elder Clissold’s vision was to provide opportunities for Pacific islanders to come to the temple. She explains how this led to the creation of the PCC, which is now a thriving institution celebrating diverse cultures.

According to the PCC website, over 100 labor missionaries offered their assistance in constructing the PCC’s original 39 buildings on a 12-acre plot that was previously used to grow taro. The village houses were constructed using authentic materials from the South Pacific and skilled craftspeople were brought in to ensure their authenticity, according to the PCC website.

Newsletter found in BYUH archives.
Photo by Joseph Ariono

Building the PCC's villages

In her book, Willes shares how in February 1962, the taro patch was dug up and the lagoon was excavated. Architect Douglas Burton studied Polynesian building styles and techniques to create drawings for the labor missionaries to use when constructing the structures, Willes writes.

The PCC village structures were built with a focus on utilizing local resources. The majority of structural logs and perimeter posts were made from ‘ohi ‘a wood, while coconut logs were also used. These logs were stripped of their bark on-site, as stated in Willes’ book.

The exteriors of the houses were covered in fern, thatch, bamboo or reeds, making it difficult to see the intricate framework of the buildings from the outside. However, the inside of the buildings revealed the complex framework, as explained by Willes in her book.

Sennit, or ‘afa, a significant material in the Pacific, was sourced from Samoa and Tonga, and used in the construction of the village structures. Strands of coconut husk were soaked, beaten and braided into strong cords for various purposes. Willes explains in her book how intricate lashings were employed to hold the framework of the buildings together, both for strength and decoration.

To maintain authenticity, indigenous materials were used for thatching whenever possible, according to Willes. Sugarcane lau, which was easily accessible in Hawaii, was used when indigenous materials were not available. Sugarcane lau had to be woven before application to reflect a commitment to traditional methods.

Pili grass, known for its durability, was also used for specific structures. However, due to its limited availability, special efforts were made to obtain it. According to Willes, pili grass was transported from Kohala on the Big Island of Hawaii to Oahu.

Additionally, in her book, Willes details the PCC’s unique approach to landscaping. Rather than planning out the greenery beforehand, the Center simply added trees and plants as they were donated by locals. After construction was completed, a labor missionary, Mileka Apuakehau Conn, featured in Willes’ book, reflected on the experience, noting they had learned to understand and appreciate the local culture and its values of patience and humility.

On Oct.12, 1963, the PCC first opened its doors to the public. Since then, it has undergone numerous changes to improve the experience for guests of all ages and backgrounds while still preserving the beauty and culture of Polynesia. According to the PCC website, Elder Cowley, one of the founders, always believed that sharing the Aloha Spirit and the customs and traditions of Polynesia would be infectious and would continue to thrive if shared with others.