(Samoa News 9/20/2010) – The American Samoa Historic Preservation Office (ASHPO) believes that the historic significance of the building and the events that have transpired there deserve national recognition. It joins the 22 other buildings and sites in the Territory already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the Naval Station Tutuila Historic District.
Familiarity sometimes breeds neglect, and the recently restored Fale Laumei is such a familiar part of our daily downtown landscape and our yearly cycle of civic events that the role it has played in our islands' recent history can be overlooked. Indeed, for most of us — those either born or arrived here in the past 48 years — it has always been there and its service to the community never questioned. However, its construction in 1962, its meaning and purpose, mark an important turning point in American Samoan history.
For 51 years, from 1900 to 1951 the governance of American Samoa was the duty of the U.S. Navy. (The scholarly term for that is a stratocracy.) In 1951 responsibility for the still "unorganized, unincorporated" possession was transferred to the Department of Interior. Truthfully, in that half century of Naval oversight little had been done to bring the islands forward into the twentieth century. And after the shock of World War II, when Tutuila was suddenly fortified against an eventually adverted Japanese invasion (at one point in 1942-43 there were as many U.S. Marines on the island as there were native islanders), the islands returned to their previous peaceful and semi-primitive state, largely ignored by Washington.
All that started to change in 1961. In July of that year an author named Clarence W. Hall published an article in the Readers Digest (at the time the best-selling magazine in the U.S. and with world-wide distribution) entitled "Samoa: America's Shame in the South Seas." The headline read: "While we have been doling out billions to underdeveloped nations, we have let our only South Pacific possession sink to the level of a slum."
Two months earlier, in May 1961, the recently inaugurated President John F. Kennedy had appointed H. Rex Lee as the next governor of American Samoa. The new Democratic administration and Governor Lee set out to reverse the decades of neglect...and absolve the shame.
Hyrum Rex Lee was not just another political appointee who had been voted out of office back home. He was a 25-year Department of Interior veteran career specialist on American Indian and dependent peoples. By October of 1961 over $10 million was allocated for improvements in American Samoa's infrastructure and education system. A deadline was also imposed. In July 1962 for the first time the tri-annual South Pacific Conference would be held on American soil in American Samoa. The 200 delegates and attendant media would be focusing international attention on Tutuila.
By March 1962 virtually every able-bodied man in Samoa was working ten hour days, six days a week to insure completion of the most needed projects by July 1. The projects included the completion of a 9,000 foot jet runway, a new power plant, new high school and housing buildings, paved highways to the airport, and "a striking Polynesian style civic auditorium that seats 800 people" — the later-to-be-named Lee Auditorium. The South Pacific Conference would successfully take place there.
Four years later, in November1965, Clarence W. Hall would publish a follow-up article in the Readers Digest—"Samoa: America's Showplace of the South Seas." This time the headline read: "From a Pacific slum to a Polynesian paradise in four years. The dramatic story of a man who helped an island people to help themselves."
Lee Auditorium was a centerpiece and emblem of the U.S. Government's new-found commitment to American Samoa. A new direction was taken in Washington's relationship with its distant possession. The door was opened for the Territory's eventually having a delegate in Congress and its own elected governor. Federal programs and funding became available. A TV broadcasting facility was built and educational television was introduced. There were flights to Honolulu. The mainland opened.
Island residents immediately took pride and possession of the building and renamed it in Samoan Fale Laumei, the turtle building, after the seeming resemblance of its shape to a sea turtle. It also became a potent symbol of the emerging centralized island self-government — a maota, a central, neutral, unclaimed meeting place, not aligned with any one village or chiefly title.
The original design of the building strove to incorporate elements of traditional Samoan architecture—the high domed ovoid roof and low eaves—but this seeming homage also made engineering sense. Enclosing a fairly large open space with the local structural issues posed by frequent hurricane-strength winds might logically have led the unknown designer to the compound, self-bracing arched design. The prevalent use of wood shakes somewhat resembling traditional thatch roofing would also have worked well on these shapes, and of course the architect's own creative interpretation of what the building should look like.
Architecturally, Lee Auditorium's imaginative utilitarian adoption of traditional Samoan fale tele house design elements into a building constructed with non-native materials and a demonstrably western influence was metaphoric of the attempt to wed the two cultures. For American Samoans the building has achieved landmark status.
The significance of this building, from an island community perspective, is that it has and continues to serve as the venue of social, cultural, political and educational events. It has been used for speech festivals, stage productions, children's theater, Chinese acrobatic displays, "Bruno's Magic Circus," and even once for a professional wrestling match. The building was used for many activities even though it was not necessarily suited to some. But it was the only large indoor venue.
The 2006-2007 restoration of Fale Laumai by Fletcher Construction at the cost of $3.2 million has made the building more suitable for many activities even while remaining a multi-purpose venue. It has been fully enclosed and air conditioned; accessible public toilets were added; the stage was upgraded to a proper stage with proscenium; and professional grade computer-controlled sound and stage lighting systems have been added.
Function-service facilities were added, such as conference rooms and a food catering set-up area. This upgrade in the facility has resulted in record size crowds attending such events as the operettas performed by students of the American Samoa Community College. In July 2010 it housed the Territorial Constitutional Convention.
For forty-eight years Lee Auditorium has been host to every important conference, convention, fashion show, educational and entertainment event in the Territory. It has served just about every function imaginable for a public building. Events that took place there fill every islander's memory. It is time now for it to take its proper place in the honor role of American Samoa's historic places, a living connection to the past.
For more information about American Samoa's historic sites contact the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office at 633-2384 or visit their website at www.ashpo.org.
Architect Joe N. Weilenman contributed to this report.