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  From The Honolulu Advertiser, August 7, 2005

Coco Palms hotel slated for redevelopment

By Jan TenBruggencate - Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

WAILUA, Kaua'i - Richard Weiser hopes to welcome guests back into the historic Coco Palms hotel by the winter of 2008 - and he wants them to walk in to the same "feel" it had during its four decades of life as the prototypical Polynesian resort.

It'll be a challenge.

Richard Weiser plans to reopen the Coco Palms hotel in 2008.
JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser
. . . . .

Hotels across the Pacific mimicked the approach that Grace Buscher Guslander brought to Coco Palms when she took over the old Coco Palms Lodge in 1953.

That feel included dense gardens, waterways, an absolute reverence for coconut trees, an architecture that drew from across Polynesia and a decor that included traditional artifacts, carvings, clamshell sinks, volcanic rock walls and much more.

Weiser will redevelop Coco Palms - closed since a few months after 1992's Hurricane Iniki - into a complex with 104 hotel rooms and 200 condominium units.

The lobby will be rebuilt, he said, to be identical with the original, and the restaurant and nightclub areas alongside ancient Hawaiian fishponds will be retained. Old walkways lined with lava rock walls will be kept where possible.

While cracking concrete and rotting timbers will require that most other structures be removed, Weiser said, he hopes to replace them with buildings that have the same feel.

Entertainer Larry Rivera, whose long career was entirely built around Coco Palms, cheers the mission.

As a teenager, Rivera worked for Alfred and Veda Hills, who turned their coastal home into a small hotel around the time of World War II.

The Hills hired the youngster in 1951 as a waiter, busboy and night desk clerk. After a term in the military, Rivera was hired again in the mid-1950s, after Lyle Guslander had bought the property.

Rivera, and almost everyone else who worked at the place, recalls happy times, a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. Many former employees have already approached Weiser about coming back to work when the hotel reopens.

"Everyone that meets me in the street tells me they're looking forward to it," Rivera said.

Author David Penhallow, who is writing a history of the hotel and of its longtime manager, started there as a waiter in 1957.

"There was a reverence to the land, to the Hawaiians, to the people. It was a very special place," he said.

Movie stars cruised through regularly ? the most famous being Elvis Presley, who filmed "Blue Hawaii" here in 1961 and who stayed in Bungalow 56.

The bungalow will be restored as an Elvis museum to look exactly as it did during the "Blue Hawaii" days, Weiser said.

Rivera recalls celebrities casually joining in when he played Hawaiian and love songs in the lagoon-side bar.

"I have fond memories of Elvis. He liked a song I wrote for my wife, called 'I Searched for Love.' He and Patty Page would sing background vocals," Rivera said.

It was that kind of a place. Guests and hotel workers were on a first-name basis. Guests often returned year after year and came to know generations of Island families.

Rivera has kept up his ties to Coco Palms with a wedding business whose hallmark is a flower-bedecked double-hulled canoe that cruises through the lagoons, as Elvis did in his "Blue Hawaii" wedding.

The ceremonies themselves are performed in the Coco Palms Chapel, a palm-thatched, open-sided affair built for the 1953 movie "Miss Sadie Thompson."

The only way to see the property today is to get married there, or to take one of the commercial tours that visit Kaua'i sites that have been memorialized on the big screen.

But that should change in a couple of years. Weiser said progress is good on his $214-million project, with demolition of the existing structures to start in January or February 2006, and construction to take about 20 months.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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