Updated: September 4, 2023
Theo Morrison has been a staunch advocate for the restoration of historic buildings and the preservation of Maui history, through her work as executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation for the past 15 years.
The Foundation, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, has managed a program to restore and protect 13 structures, including the Baldwin Home, Masters Reading Room and Kindergarten Building, as well as the Seamen’s Hospital and Plantation House, the Wo Hing Museum and Cookhouse, Hale Pa’i, the Old Lahaina Courthouse, Hale Pa’ahao “Old Lahaina Prison,” the Pioneer Mill Smokestack, Agawa Home and Hale Aloha.
The restoration phase sometimes included a bit of innovative thinking, such as leasing the Seamen’s Hospital to architect Uwe Schultz, in exchange for Schultz assuming the cost of renovation in return for a 25-year lease. In other instances, it’s involved applying and getting grants as in the restoration of the Old Lahaina Courthouse.
Morrison talks about a greater participation by the Foundation in helping to form educational programs and creating partnerships that bring history alive. Morrison, once a fiber artist creating baskets from a variety of natural materials, has helped to successfully weave the stories of Lahaina’s past into an amazing tour through history.
Maui Now: A People Of Maui Interview
KUBOTA: What are the opportunities facing the Lahaina Restoration Foundation as it moves through its 60th anniversary?
MORRISON: Lahaina Restoration Foundation sees many opportunities emerging during our 60th anniversary. Our mission is to be stewards and storytellers of Lahaina’s historic and cultural heritage.
To this end, we are connecting with the community through our new, free, monthly Movie at the Old Prison, the expanded Lahaina Quest program, our Hands on History volunteerism program, Night at the Museum, our new quarterly blacksmith demonstrations on the Baldwin Home lawn and much more.
KUBOTA: I know the Foundation has been a great financial supporter of Lahainaluna High School students, offering up to 10 scholarships ranging between $1,000 and $5,000 to enrolled full-time college students. What’s the goal of the Lahaina Quest program?
MORRISON: The goal is to bring history to life through fun, hands-on, educational activities. Many studies have shown that future adults are shaped by their interests, understanding, use of free time at around the age of 10-12. So, basically the habits and interests that you form as a fourth or fifth grader will stick with you and inform your interests and pastimes as an adult. We want to lock into that and start forming the future preservationists, history lovers, and maybe even museum professionals, now.
KUBOTA: Why Lahaina?
MORRISON: Through all eras of Hawaiʻi’s history, Lahaina has been a very significant place. From pre-contact times, through the monarchy, missionary, whaling eras, during the plantation era and still today, Lahaina remains an important and notable place. Lahaina played a profound role in Hawaiian history leaving a mosaic of physical remnants throughout the area, helping to create the town’s character and unique sense of place.
KUBOTA: What other programs are you developing for children?
MORRISON: We are planning to engage directly with the schools and invite the teachers to bring their students to our historic sites to participate in cultural/historic activities.
KUBOTA: What’s happening at the Baldwin Home Museum?
MORRISON: In the museum, former home of missionary doctor Dwight Baldwin, we will be adding a “5 Senses” experience that will enable museum guests to see, smell, touch, taste, a variety of plants that Dr. Baldwin used to prepare his medicines. For example, noni leaves, which are a pantropical plant, were applied topically to sterilize wounds, reduce headaches, and treat arthritis. They have a very particular ammonia-like scent.
KUBOTA: What other events are you planning this year?
MORRISON: We are planning a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Lahaina Banyan Tree on April 22, Earth Day. The Lahaina community lovingly cared for the sapling tree and nurtured its growth to be the mammoth tree it is today. Gardeners encouraged selected roots to grow by tying pickle jars with water to them. Once these roots touched the ground, they became strong trunks that now stand in a symmetrical circle around the main, original trunk. The Lahaina Banyan Tree has been at the center of community life in Lahaina for decades and has welcomed large celebrations, student May Day programs and formal gatherings.
Early this year we held a blacksmithing demonstration on the front lawn of the Baldwin Home Museum. It was such a success we have decided to hold this event quarterly and possibly add other traditional arts from the 1800s.
We are bringing back the History in Our Front Yard Tour for teachers and opening it up to teachers island wide. This guided walking tour of Lahaina provides teachers with a close up look and deeper understanding of Lahaina’s history. The spring tour is full, but we may add a tour in the fall if there is interest.
Night at the Museum is a new program we started in 2022. Youth and their parents spend the night at one of Lahaina’s historic sites and engage in activities, taste food and enjoy music from that era of history.
Free, Hawaiian cultural classes have also restarted and are being offered throughout the year.
KUBOTA: Any other event?
MORRISON: Plans are underway for our “best ever” float for Nā Kamehameha Parade in June. Actual design is shrouded in secrecy, but the float will be built on a big rig flatbed truck.
KUBOTA: How has the Foundation changed from the beginning until now?
MORRISON: In the early days, the primary job of the organization was restoration of historic buildings and sites. Today, many of the structures in Lahaina from the 1800s have been restored or some, unfortunately, lost. The only remaining major structure in Lahaina needing restoration is the Pioneer Mill Office built in 1910. The historic Mill Office provides a window into the contributions of the waves of immigrant groups who came to West Maui to work on the plantations.
KUBOTA: I can’t help thinking how innovative yet challenging it must be to have actors portraying characters of old Hawaii in History Theatre presentations. Is there more of this kind of portrayal of history planned in the future?
MORRISON: We have a great partnership with Hawaiian Mission Houses on Oʻahu, who created and developed the History Theater program. We are pleased to bring such a quality program to Lahaina. We host two different presentations a year, one in the summer and one in the fall. Hawaiian Mission Houses develops the scripts, selects the actors and creates the costuming. The scripts are developed from research of old letters, newspapers etc. so the authenticity of the characters being portrayed is preserved.
KUBOTA: It sounds like a lot of work ahead of you?
MORRISON: It’s obviously not just me. There are many who have preceded me, including visionaries such as Jim Luckey who developed enduring partnerships with Maui County on the restoration and maintenance of historic buildings. My predecessor – Keoki Freeland – as well as many volunteers, staff and the LRF Board of Directors all work diligently to keep Lahaina’s history alive. We are currently expanding our staff and actively seeking an educator, development director and event coordinator.
KUBOTA: Your role seems to be expanding as the Foundation grows?
MORRISON: It is a fascinating job that has given me a deep appreciation for the enduring legacy of our historic town.
Theo Morrison may be reached at Theo@lahainarestoration.org or 808-661-3262. The Foundation’s website is lahainarestoration.org