When the British navigator, Capt. James Cook, “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, Polynesians had been navigating the Pacific Ocean for more than 1,000 years. The population of the Hawaiian Islands was estimated between 300,000 and 800,000. By the early 1800s a census counted only 50,000 Hawaiians. More than 95% of the people had died. The dense population of Hawaiians who had once lived on this idyllic and celebrated stretch of the Kona Coast had disappeared. Grass hale had melted into the landscape. The kuliana were overgrown and abandoned. All that remained were rock walls and house platforms, and native plants that had been used for food, medicine, tools, weapons and shade. Along the seashore were stone artifacts used for pa’a kai, (sea salt pans), post holes, palu (bait) bowls, and konane (Hawaiian checkers). Many of these artifacts are still in evidence along the shore in front of the Cottage.
Kona in the 1900’s
In the early 1900s Kona was noted for its large cattle ranches. The best grazing land began midway up the slope of Hualalac where daily rainfall nurtured luxuriant grass lands. At higher elevations, potable water was abundant. Kailua, which had been one of King Kamehameha principal residences, supported only a small fishing industry, one hotel and three stores. Few people wanted to live at the beach, it was hot and dry. There was no public water system. Wells yielded brackish water. There was no electricity. The one lane road was surfaced with crushed coral that was hard on automobile tires.
The Zen Cottage
The Seaside Zen Cottage is one of the oldest beach homes on the Kona Coast. Sometime in the early 1900’s Dr. Phillips purchased a “surplus” teacher’s cottage in Hilo. Dr. Phillips had the house dismantled, put on a truck and reassembled on his beachfront lot in Kona. Whether this occurred in the 1920’s, ’30s or ’40s is unknown. Marjorie and Robbie Robertson started renting Dr. Phillips’ oceanfront vacation rental in the very early 1940s it was one of the few homes on the Government Road (as Alii Drive was then known). The 7 mile long single lane unpaved road from Kailua to Keauhou was little traveled and sparsely populated.
Dr. Phillips undoubtedly paid very little for his ½ acre beachfront lot. His recycled house probably cost less than $500. It had no insulation, no heating, no cooling, and no electrical systems. Water for the bathrooms was supplied by a brackish well. Rainwater was funneled off the roof into a 5,000 gallon redwood tank. The inlet to the tank had a fine mesh screen to keep out the insects, rodents and birds. There was no hot water. Light was provided by Coleman lanterns or kerosene lamps. Blocks of ice purchased at Akona Store in Kailua were placed in an icebox to cool perishables. Fortuitously, the Cottage was made of termite resistant cedar, enabling it to survive for more than 100 years.
Marjorie and Robbie Robertson purchased the Seaside Zen Cottage in 1951. Since then The Cottage has been wired for electricity. There is a County water and “wastewater” system. There are modern appliances and conveniences like wireless internet and cable TV, but we have strived to keep the Seaside Zen Cottage reminiscent of the time when it was known as “The Phillips Place.” Emily Jagoda, a brilliant architect who studied in Japan re-imagined the stuffy Hilo teacher’s cottage, opened it up to the ocean and mountain breezes and created its Zen like atmosphere.
“‘A’ohe pueo ke’u, ‘a’ohe’alae kani, ‘a’ohe ‘ulili holoholo kahakai.”
No owl hoots, no mudhen cries, no ‘ulili runs on the beach. There is perfect peace.