Hawaii today is the 50th state of the United States of America, but in the 19th century it was an independent monarchy, recognised by all the major powers in the Pacific.
Despite the proximity of the United States, and the influence of New England missionaries, the Hawaiian monarchy continually looked to Europe as a model. In 1824 the 2nd king of the Hawaii was the first to travel to Europe, and while his trip ended badly, the Hawaiian fascination with travel and Europe continued. Queen Victoria was godmother by proxy to the only child of Kamehameha IV. Kamehameha V had travelled extensively in the US and Europe before becoming king.
In 1881 King Kalakaua became the first monarch (of anywhere, not just Hawaii) to circumnavigate the globe as he visited Japan, China, Siam, India, the US, and pretty much of all of Europe. In Europe Kalakaua was extremely taken with the grand palaces of the European royalty, and was determined to build a grand palace in Hawaii. While in Europe he ordered furnishings, and on his return work went full speed ahead.
‘Iolani Palace (Royal or Heavenly Hawk Palace, named for Kamehameha V) was completed less than two years later, for a total cost of $340,000 (an absolute fortune at the time – not the best financial decision for the island kingdom). The palace was the grandest building in the Pacific, and a triumph of architecture and modernity. Built in an architectural style referred to as American Florentine, it could more accurately be called Hawaiian Renaissance, as ‘Iolani Palace specifically references Roman-based Italian Renaissance architecture with Hawaiian touches, and is the only example of American Florentine architecture in the world. It featured indoor plumbing, electricity and telephones – the last two well before they were installed in the White House.
Electricity and telephones were so rare in the early 1880s that the palace had to run its own electrical system, and the telephone was used almost exclusively to call the electrical engineer and let him know that he could shut down the generator for the night. Hawaii had no general telephone system so there was no-one outside the palace to call!
While the electricity and telephone weren’t able to be used to their full potential, they were much admired by the diplomats and visiting notables who attended glittering balls and receptions at the royal palace, dancing to the strains of popular tunes played by the Royal Hawaiian Band as they were cooled by trade winds that blew through the clever vented windows, or listening to Princess Lili’uokalani (later Queen) play one of her compositions at the beautiful piano in the Blue Room. I’m sure they appreciated the indoor loos as well!
Sadly, the palace was the royal residence for just over a decade. The descendants of the American missionaries who played such a part in Nahi’ena’ena’s sad story resented the Hawaiian ties to England over the United States had been gradually undermining the Hawaiian monarchy’s power. In 1893 they staged a coup and overthrew the monarchy. They initially turned Hawaii into a Republic and imprison Queen Lili’uokalani in her own palace, before convincing the United States to annex the Kingdom in 1898. The Kingdom was no more, and the palace became an office building.
In 1969 the process of restoring the Palace began, and a decade later it was opened as a museum. Restoration continues today, with the downstairs kitchens and office rooms being the most recent restoration project. Another major part of the restoration is the search for the original furnishings. A dedicated group of amateur historians haunt auction catalogues and antique stores looking for the scattered glory of the lost kingdom. Pieces have been found across the world: in the US, across Europe, and even in New Zealand. One tourist visiting the palace looked at a photograph of the Kings bedroom in its original condition, and realised that the lost table shown in the photograph was in his own living room!
Despite growing up in Hawaii, I’ve only visited the palace twice – once on a Girl Scout trip, and then again on my last trip home. I’d remembered from my first trip that photography was strictly forbidden at the Palace, but I decided to visit it anyway, and attempt to blog about it for you without images.
Sitting on the front lanai (veranda), waiting for my time slot to go in I confirmed the ‘No Photography’ rule with one of the hosts, and was told, to my absolute delight, that the rule had just changed, and they hadn’t had time to take down the signs or change the pamphlets.
Oh delight! Oh joy! I was going to document everything and show you all of it!
Like the front doors, with their frosted glass, designed and made in San Francisco by artists who tried to incorporate Hawaiian imagery without every having seen the plants and people they were illustrating. The end result is amusing, to say the least:
And the fabulously Victorian carpet in the Dining Room, carefully reproduced based on the original:
And then, after only three rooms (the Great Hall, Blue Room & Dining Room), my camera batter died. I hadn’t even got to the really interesting and Hawaiian bits, like the Throne Room, and the upstairs bedrooms, where Queen Lili’u was held prisoner!
No worries though, I had another one in my camera bag!
Nope. It was back in my luggage in storage for the day. Grrrrrr!
So you’ll just have to enjoy the three rooms I did photograph, with their fascinating mix of Victorian taste, Hawaiian tradition, and attempt to create a royal palace in the furthest outpost of the world at the end of the 19th century.
The Hawaiian touches are subtle: louvered windows to let in the sea breezes, native woods throughout.
The Victorian taste is very evident: the too elaborate furniture and carpets, the crowded walls, the dark colours.
The Royal touch is there in the portraits, the gifts from diplomats, and the juxtaposition of private residence and government building.
Sadly, it is the upstairs, which I was not able to photograph, that best conveys the triumph and tragedy of the Hawaiian monarchy. On the one side there is the King’s Bedroom, where Kalakaua played raucous games of poker and won hands by claiming that four kings beat four aces, because when he held them there were five kings.
On the other hand, and across the hall, there is the room where Lili’uokalani was imprisoned after a failed counter coup, and where she created a quilt that combines Victorian crazy quilts with a defiant statement of Hawaiian sovereignty.
And haunting the whole upstairs is the sense that the building was a very adult building: there were so few bedrooms, all so large and grown-up. There was no nursery. There were no children. The last princess grew up elsewhere. She never got to live in the Palace, to have children that could be heirs, that could fill the palace with laughter and joy and leave fingerprints on the pristine staircase.