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Taking a look at ‘Iolani Palace

Formerly the residence of the Monarchs of Hawaii, ‘Iolani Palace now stands as a monument to the island’s tragic history.

Those visiting Hawaii before may well have made time away from the beaches, lush forests and dazzling lava flows to visit ‘Iolani Palace, the former residence of the Kings and Queens of Hawaii. As Hawaii has started to remember its Native Hawaiian past and legacy, the Palace has seen more and more visitors arrive each year, all curious about this grand relic of a time before the American republic advanced upon her balmy golden shores.

The House of Ali’i

‘Iolani Palace was originally a burial site for Hawaiian ali’i (kings) called Pohukaina. According to legend, Pohukaina was a Hawaiian king who chose a nearby cave as his resting place. The plot of land was owned by a Hawaiian noblewoman called Kekauluohi, who would later serve the Kingdom of Hawaii as its Kuhina Nui — roughly the Hawaiian equivalent of a Prime Minister. At the time there were already a number of small structures used by Kekauluohi and her husband as their residence, as well as a large dilapidated structure that stood over the remains of a former Hawaiian temple. There was the intention of rebuilding the latter as a new palace. However, the land was purchased by King Kamehameha III after he moved the capital of his kingdom to Honolulu. It was his intention to build a new royal palace upon the plot.

After the last relatives of Kekauluohi had died, the rest of the estate was purchased by the Hawaiian Crown and added to the estate.

Photo: Hawaii State Archives – U. S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

The first structure built on the site was called the Hale Ali’i (House of the Ali’i), and it was constructed in the traditional style of Hawaiian chieftains at the time. It was purely a ceremonial structure used for affairs of state and had no living quarters. It was comprised of a single wooden building with a throne room, reception room, and a state dining room for banquets. Guests and retainers were given accommodation in nearby buildings specifically intended for that purpose. When Kamehameha III purchased it in 1845, he preferred to sleep in a much cooler grass hut set up along the Palace’s flanks. This building was called Ho’iko’ikea, in honour of his restoration after the Paulette Affair in 1843 when an itinerant British captain attempted to seize the islands for the United Kingdom. Further structures were added by King Kamehameha IV.

When King Kamehameha V inherited the estate, he renamed the palace ‘Iolani Palace after his late brother, whose full birth name was Alexander ‘Iolani Liholiho. The structure of the palace had remained largely untouched since it became the official residence of the King of Hawaii; however, even then it remained the largest and most impressive structure in Honolulu. It continued to be used largely as an administrative and diplomatic building as opposed to a residence, and like his brothers before him, King Kamehameha V slept in the more comfortable adjoining buildings.

His addition was the Ali’iolani Hale — the House of the Heavenly Kings — originally because he wanted a royal residence that matched the grandeur of foreign monarchs. However, Hawaii at the time lacked a proper seat of government, and its original buildings were becoming cramped and inefficient as the machinery of government continued to grow. Because of this more urgent need, Ali’iolani Hale was instead used to house the Kingdom of Hawaii’s judiciary and various other ministries. To this day, Ali’iolani continues to function as the Hawaii State Supreme Court.

A New Palace

Those who have read our articles on the history of other palaces may have noted a recurring trend of palaces being burnt down. ‘Iolani Palace is no different. What makes it unique is that the fire was a deliberate act on the part of its resident monarch.

When ‘Iolani Palace came into the hands of King Kalakaua, the first of the Kalakaua dynasty and the last King of Hawaii, he too had grand ambitions for the official residence of the King of Hawaii. King Kalakaua was the first Hawaiian monarch to travel abroad, and while visiting the courts of European monarchs, he was struck by the majesty and beauty of their palaces, and desired to bring something similar to Hawaii. If nothing else, it would reflect very well upon his own royal house, and of the uncertain status, Hawaii enjoyed as an independent Pacific kingdom that had so far managed to avoid being consumed by the growing colonial powers within the region.

By this point, the old building of ‘Iolani Palace had fallen into something of a state of disrepair, with its ageing timbers having become infested with termites. With the building beyond salvaging in any event, the King ordered the Palace to be burnt to the ground. With the way clear for it to be replaced by a larger, grander modern building, Kalakaua commissioned the construction of a new palace just opposite the Ali’iolani Hale. The first cornerstone was laid on 31st December 1879 with full Masonic rites and would eventually be completed in November 1882 at the cost of around $340,000 (about $7.5 million in 2015).

Unlike the older wooden structure, the new ‘Iolani Palace was built of brick and faced with concrete, which made it much stronger and more resistant to damage, as well as better regulating the temperature. It occupies a surface area of 43m by 30m and has two stories and a basement with a total height of 16m. The Palace has four corner towers, as well as a larger central tower that measures at 23m in height. Its architecture was inspired by the elegant structures Kalakaua encountered in Italy, and its like is the only example found anywhere in the world. Dubbed “American Florentine,” it is considered to be the finest example of Hawaiian renaissance architecture and was a world-famous landmark upon its completion. The Palace was also fitted with modern Victorian utilities, including plumbing, running water, electricity, and a telephone line.

‘Iolani Palace holds the distinction of utilising electric lights and telephones long before the White House adopted them.

Upon the Palace’s completion, the event was marked with an official European-style coronation held for King Kalakaua at its steps, although the King had already been on the throne for nearly a decade. Afterwards, the coronation pavilion, named the Kelliponi Hale, was moved to the south-west corner of the palace grounds. It was subsequently used by the Royal Hawaiian Band as a performance pavilion.

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

‘Iolani Palace would continue to function as the official residence of the Hawaiian monarch until 1893, when Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by the Committee of Safety. After the Queen attempted to abridge the highly controversial Bayonet Constitution, which stripped power from Native Hawaiians in favour of European settlers, American and European subjects of the Kingdom moved to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii and declare a republic. When US Marines landed in Honolulu to take up defensive positions around the American Legate, Consulate and Arian Hall, royalist defenders felt as though they could not defend the Queen without sparking a potentially devastating war with the United States. Knowing her position was indefensible, Queen Liliʻuokalani surrendered her sovereignty to the United States government rather than the Provisional Hawaiian government.

By Unknown – Hawaii State Archives. Call Number: PP-36-3-002, Public Domain,

It was her hope that, as with the British before in the Paulette Affair, the Americans would restore that sovereignty to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Her trust was misplaced. The provisional government set up a committee to petition the USA for annexation, and the US ambassador to Hawaii declared the island a US protectorate. The action was ruled as illegal by the Cleveland administration, and after securing the Queen’s promise that she would grant the instigators amnesty ordered the provisional government to restore Liliʻuokalani to her throne. He was bluntly refused, and the Republic of Hawaii was declared.

Queen Liliʻuokalani and her retainers were evicted from ‘Iolani Palace, which was put to use as the new presidential mansion and the centre of the legislature. The new Hawaiian House of Representatives met within the Throne Room, while the Senate met in the former Dining Room. Liliʻuokalani was relocated to Washington Place, her former residence before becoming Queen of Hawaii before she was later arrested due to her connections to an attempted royalist rebellion in 1895. She was subsequently placed under house arrest in an upper bedroom of ‘Iolani Palace, which today is referred to as the “Imprisonment Room.” Her trial for treason against the Republic of Hawaii was held in the Throne Room. In order to secure the release of those who led the rebellion to restore her, she abdicated the Hawaiian throne.

While held there, she was refused all visitors except for one lady in waiting, and she spent her time in prayer, reading music compositions, and sewing together a quilt that can still be seen in the Palace to this day. She left the Palace upon her pardon by the Republic in 1896 and left at once for the United States to campaign against Hawaii’s annexation. She would not return.

When the resolution to annexe the Hawaiian Islands was ratified by Congress in July 1898, Queen Liliʻuokalani refused to attend the annexation ceremony held at ‘Iolani Palace. Instead, she shuttered herself inside Washington Place. Many Native Hawaiians and royalists followed suit and boycotted the ceremony in protest.

Territory Capital, Then State Capital, Then Museum

An archive building was constructed in 1906 to house Hawaii’s records from the founding of the Kingdom to that day. However beyond that ‘Iolani Palace remained as it always did. Many of the original furnishings were sold after the monarchy was overthrown, while personal belongings were returned to the former royal family. It was then used as the seat of government for the Republic, Territory, and then State of Hawaii.

Redecoration work was conducted in 1930 to replace the old wooden fittings with stronger steel and reinforced concrete. Meanwhile the name ‘Iolani Palace’ was restored in 1935.

During the Second World War, ‘Iolani Palace served as the headquarters for American military actions within the Pacific Theatre, and was the place of residence for the military governor after martial law was declared across the islands. Hawaiian citizens of Japanese descent who were recruited into the US Army for service were sworn in during a mass ceremony on the palace grounds, before they were sent to the mainland for training.

Although the seat of Hawaii’s government, the building began to languish and fall into disrepair. Hawaii’s first state governor, John A. Burns, first initiated restoration efforts in the ’60s to restore it to its former glory. ‘Iolani Palace was designated a National Historic Landmark on the 29th of December 1962. A new state building was constructed in 1969 as ‘Iolani Palace became too small and cramped to adequately serve this role, and this allowed further efforts towards the palace’s restoration. The Junior League of Honolulu conducted extensive research into the state of the palace during its heyday, uncovering information about the sorts of furnishings, decor and materials used. The overall effort was overseen by the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, which was founded by Liliʻuokalani Kawānanakoa Morris, Queen Liliʻuokalani’s great-grandniece, to provide care and stewardship to the Palace.

Through much expense and effort, many original items lost during the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy were returned, and ‘Iolani Palace was reopened to the public as a museum to the history of Hawaii in 1978. It continues to mark the tragic history of this lost Pacific kingdom to this day, and serves as a sort of spiritual centre for native Hawaiians who still yearn to see their kingdom freed once more. The birthdays of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi’olani are celebrated each year with ceremonies on the palace grounds.

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