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ISLAND HISTORY: Robert Allerton, founder of National Tropical Botanical Garden

In 1937, a wealthy, 64-year-old patron of the arts and philanthropist, Robert Allerton (1873-1964), bought the 125-acre McBryde Estate located on Lawa‘i Bay, paying $50,000 for the property that had once belonged to Queen Emma.

Soon afterward, Allerton’s partner, architect John Gregg, began designs for a new house they built near the bay and furnished with antique furniture and art treasures.

Allerton and Gregg renamed their estate Lawa‘i Kai, and then commenced work designing and laying out landscaped gardens planted with rare and exotic tropical plants that would eventually become the Allerton Gardens of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Working alongside their help — mainly Hawaiians who shared with them their knowledge of native plants — they cleared the land of haole koa and lantana, all without the use of a bulldozer that would have changed the natural contour of the land, discovering old walls, house sites and burial caves in the process, and treating these antiquities with respect.

They also uncovered the remains of irrigation ditches and ponds that Hawaiians had built long ago when they’d diverted water from Lawa‘i Stream to irrigate taro they’d cultivated throughout the entire Lawa‘i Valley.

Near the beach stood Queen Emma’s cottage, and close by was Pu‘u Kiloia, a large basalt hill that had been used since ancient times by Hawaiians as a platform to spot schools of fish.

Meanwhile, Allerton continued his philanthropic endeavors, donating funds generously to several causes, including Honolulu’s Foster Gardens and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

In 1963, Allerton petitioned the U. S. Congress to charter a nonprofit botanical garden at Lawa‘i Kai. And in 1964, an act of Congress chartered the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (renamed the National Tropical Botanical Garden), which would encompass Allerton’s gardens.

Gregg inherited Allerton’s Lawa‘i Kai property, and would serve as director and a generous supporter of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden until his death in 1986, bequeathing most of his estate to benefit the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden.

Today, Allerton and McBryde Gardens feature thousands of species of plants and fruit trees, with tours available to the
public.
Source: The Garden Island

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