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Christopher B. Hemmeter, 64; His Opulent Resorts Transformed Hawaii Tourism Business

November 30, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Christopher B. Hemmeter, who transformed Hawaii tourism in the 1980s with his development of lavish mega-resorts but lost most of his fortune in the 1990s when he gambled on a grandiose but ill-fated New Orleans casino project, died Thursday at his Brentwood home. He was 64.

The causes of death were Parkinson's disease and liver cancer, said his son Mark.

Hemmeter's name became synonymous with opulence when he opened several "destination resorts" in Hawaii in the 1980s. They boasted exotic animals, gondolas, lake-sized swimming pools, Clydesdale-drawn carriages, expensive Asian artworks and acres of brass and marble.

Although some locals complained that his properties were not environmentally friendly, the resorts created thousands of jobs and attracted affluent Japanese tourists, who helped fuel an economic boom in the islands.

"He totally revolutionized the hotel industry here in Hawaii," Larry Johnson, retired chief executive of the Bank of Hawaii, said Friday. "Until he started to build them, hotels were pretty generic -- the rooms and lobbies all kind of looked alike.

"He had waterfalls and birds and animals and unusual art," Johnson said. "Coming to one of Hemmeter's hotels, you didn't just get a hotel but an experience."

Among the splashiest of his five Hawaiian resorts were the Westin Kauai and the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, each of which cost more than $300 million to build. He also developed the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, the Westin Maui and the Hyatt Regency Maui.

Hemmeter left Hawaii in 1990 to pursue development projects on the mainland, focusing on casinos, which he saw as the next big wave in tourism. However, his grand scheme for a supersize casino in New Orleans failed, a bittersweet experience that he often described as his greatest triumph and defeat.

Hemmeter was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in the Bay Area community of Los Altos. His father, George, held more than 30 patents for inventions, such as a self-balancing washing machine, but his fortunes rose and fell over the years because of unscrupulous business partners.

Chris Hemmeter remembered living in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright one year and surviving on welfare two years later.

"I think that's why I never feared failure -- because it doesn't matter to me," he told New Orleans Magazine in 1993. "I'd already seen the extremes of life during my early upbringing."

His family favored camping vacations, he said, so he had never stayed in a hotel when he decided to major in hotel management at Cornell University. After graduating in 1962, he headed to Hawaii with little money to become an assistant manager at the venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.

He quit after barely a year, astonishing his boss when he announced that he would rather own a hotel than work for one.

He began his entrepreneurial career in 1963, when he formed a company to operate restaurants in Waikiki's Ilikai hotel. By 1965 he was resuscitating the Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain, selling it to a Boston-based travel company a few years later for a $5-million profit, which he took in the form of stock.

Hemmeter lost the $5 million when the Boston company collapsed in 1971, but he quickly invested what remained of his savings in another restaurant venture that he later sold for cash. With the proceeds from that deal he developed a chain of gift shops on the islands, which helped him build his first major property, the King's Alley retail complex in Waikiki.

In 1974, with considerable panache but relatively little cash of his own, he embarked on his first resort project as a partner with Hyatt Regency, persuading a group of 16 bankers to lend him $75 million, then reportedly the largest construction loan in Hawaiian history. The result was the 1,200-room Hyatt Regency Waikiki at Hemmeter Center.

During the 1980s he built four huge resorts on the other islands, each of which added to his reputation as a developer who turned outsize fantasies into reality.

On the Big Island of Hawaii he turned acres of black lava into the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, an oasis that offered a private railway; a grotto for swimming with dolphins; a man-made jungle stocked with flamingos and peacocks; statues of Buddhas, nymphs and dragons; and rooms that began at $215 a night.

"What we have here is another Anaheim," then-Times travel editor Jerry Hulse, now deceased, wrote in 1990. "All that's missing is Sleeping Beauty's Castle, a paddle wheeler and the Matterhorn."

The resort had nine restaurants, 13 cocktail lounges and columns that reached five stories high. "Julius Caesar never saw anything like it," Hemmeter himself once boasted.

The Westin Kauai, which he completed in 1987, was just as outlandish. Little about it was Hawaiian. Hemmeter built high-end boutiques, mahogany launches that cruised a network of canals and lagoons, and a two-acre reflecting pool with a fountain rivaling those at Versailles.

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