The State of Aloha
In the heart of Lahaina town between the library and the ocean, you will find old bricks in the shape of a rectangle preserved in concrete. That is all that is left of the first Western-style house in the islands.
In 1798, Kamehameha the Great commissioned two foreigners believed to be escaped convicts from the penal colony of Australia to build a Western-style house for Queen Ka’ahumanu. Mr. Mela and Mr. Keka’ele’ele, a name roughly meaning “Black Jack,” and whom scholars believe might have been an inhabitant of African descent, fired bricks from pulverized coral, sand and Lahaina’s distinct red soil.
It was two stories high with a thatched roof and glazed windows. Kamehameha himself stayed there in 1802. And although it was built for his queen, Ka’ahumanu preferred a nearby grass hut.
When the Capitol moved from Lahaina to Honolulu, King Kamehameha III purchased a lavish wooden home for his royal residence in 1845. It was actually more like a royal office building with its throne room, reception areas and a dining room for state dinners, but no real place to live. Sleeping quarters were in grass huts and smaller homes on the property. This was the site for the monarch for three kings.
These structures all pale in comparison after King David Kalakaua set out to build a new residence. The sixth monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom dreamed big. He wanted Hawaii to be the center for Pacific nations. Bilingual, highly educated, and eloquent, Kalakaua impressed presidents, kings and leaders of nations on his world tour in the late 19th century.
And Kalakaua was surely impressed by the world’s leaders and their great cities. He wanted his royal residence to be world class. Construction began in 1879 and took three years to construct his ‘Iolani Palace.
The building’s style is called American Florentine, a late 19th century contribution to architecture drawing from Italian and tropical aesthetics. Kalakaua wanted the best for his palace. The wooden banisters are made of koa wood. The high ceilings and plush furniture are indeed fit for any Victorian-era royal family. In fact, it was better. The palace had telephones and electricity before Buckingham Palace and the White House.
After Kalakaua, his sister, Queen Lili’oukalani, resided there. When the kingdom was overthrown by her traitorous subjects, she was imprisoned in a corner room for close to eight months.
‘Iolani Palace has outlasted the monarchy. It has housed the governments of the unlawful provisional government, the Hawaiian Republic — a republic in name only — and the Territory of Hawai’i and the early legislatures of the state government.
The palace grounds along King Street has witnessed momentous events in our history, too. Long after Kalakaua’s magnificent coronation festivities, the palace grounds witnessed the handover of island sovereignty to the United States and the inauguration of every territorial governor and six state governors.
(Gov. Linda Lingle would break from the tradition in 2002 and was sworn in at the Capitol Rotunda. And although Neil Abercrombie went back to the palace for his inauguration, David Ige followed Lingle’s lead in 2014 and 2018.)
The palace itself became the main government building for Hawaii. The Legislature moved in and the governor occupied the top floor. The set up did not change after statehood in 1959 either.
In fact, Gov. John Burns was known for his informal “press conferences” on the backsteps of the palace. Newsmen would gather around the back near the banyan tree and talk story with politicians who would frequently move in and out of the government building.
But by then, the palace was in bad shape and had deteriorated from years of neglect. In 1969, after 87 years of housing the government for the islands, the Capitol was moved to a grand and symbolic building along Beretania Street.
The new Capitol was designed to incorporate Hawaii’s natural elements — the blue skies, the endless oceans and volcanoes. It even has a moat. And while the Legislature and the governor moved into their dazzling new building, the palace was closed to the public. A nonprofit corporation, Friends of Iolani Palace, took over the maintenance of the building and restored it to its original late 19th century splendor. In 1978, it was made a museum and reopened to the public.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Hawaii’s tourism industry, the palace saw 450 to 550 visitors a day. It has reopened to the public and only a fraction of visitors can visit and maintain a safe social distance from one another. The future of the palace is uncertain. Many fear that it may be shuttered again. And while our government has a lot to contend with these days, it cannot forget our past and our ‘Iolani Palace.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”