The father of Ala Moana Center has died.
Donald H. Graham Jr., who passed away Tuesday at the age of 96, helped dramatically shape Hawaii’s modern landscape over a long life filled with incredible optimism, financial genius and generosity.
Graham developed projects statewide, from residential subdivisions to high-rise condos to hotels. But he is most remembered for creating one of the biggest and best shopping centers in the United States on swampland ewa of Waikiki that was filled in with dredged coral.
When it opened in 1959, Ala Moana Center transformed shopping habits for residents by recentralizing Oahu’s retail epicenter from downtown Honolulu into a cluster of stores in one gigantic building with abundant free parking as automobile use proliferated.
The project at the time was regarded by many observers as a folly, in part because Graham’s design called for stores and parking on two levels with the mall’s orientation away from the ocean.
"When you look at Ala Moana, you would not have thought when it was drawn that it would work, yet it turned out to be one of the most successful shopping centers in the world," said Phil Russell, who later founded a development firm with Graham.
"He was a giant in Hawaii’s real estate development history."
Ala Moana Center expanded to become the largest shopping center in America — a title it held for many years. The mall has consistently been one of the three highest-grossing malls in the country, and remains the largest U.S. outdoor shopping center, with about 290 stores and restaurants occupying 2.1 million square feet of leasable space.
Graham was born in Oakland, Calif., on June 14, 1914. He graduated from the University of California-Berkeley, and became a bond trader before joining the Army and serving in an amphibious unit during World War II.
The Army awarded Graham two bronze stars for service in the Philippine battles of Leyte and Lingayan. Graham also was present in Tokyo for the signing of the treaty with Japan to end the war.
After the war, Graham joined Dillingham Corp. in late 1945 and became president of the firm’s Hawaiian Land Corp. subsidiary.
Development projects led by Graham for Dillingham included the mall, the Ala Moana Hotel, the 1350 Ala Moana condo and the Ala Moana Building office tower.
Graham’s son, D.H. "Mac" Graham III, said he grew up on the Ala Moana project, learning to drive a car on crushed coral that filled the site.
"I remember as a kid going in there and finding an eel that had been dredged out of the reef."
Mac Graham and his sister, Pattiann, said their father was a great teacher and that they learned a lot from him about business and finance. "If he was a musician, we’d probably be in the symphony," Pattiann said.
Graham left Dillingham Corp. after 27 years, and with partners formed other development firms including Mainline Associates, Graham Wong Hastings and Graham Murata Russell, now known as GMR LLC.
Over Graham’s career, other real estate projects he had a hand in included the Discovery Bay condo in Waikiki, the Maui Marriott Resort, Coconut Beach Hotel on Kauai and Wailupe Peninsula residential subdivision in East Honolulu.
Sanford Murata, a Graham partner, said his friend trusted in his associates and rewarded them generously. "I was privileged to have worked with Don," Murata said.
Graham had been coming into the GMR office daily until about two weeks ago. He checked into the hospital on Sunday. He had pneumonia but was diagnosed shortly thereafter with acute leukemia.
"Don’s long career has left a mark on the landscape of Hawaii," said local appraiser Paul Cool in an e-mail. "A fuller life would be hard to achieve."
Graham is survived by his wife, Kathryn, a brother and sister, his two children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.