Stepping into the halls of ‘Iolani Palace, the sounds of downtown Honolulu fade away. The chandeliers above cast a warm light, giving a sepia hue to the ornate paneling and lush drapery that signify the status of the palace’s former residents. To all who enter, it is clear this was a place that held great power.
Less apparent is the effort involved in maintaining such a storied place. Behind each new floorboard and refurbished lock is an incredible amount of thought and consideration. Those working on the palace’s upkeep pay respects not just to the building but also to the former kingdom. ‘Iolani Palace is an emblem of Hawaiian sovereignty, and efforts to restore the palace serve to simultaneously preserve the memory of the Hawaiian Kingdom and immortalize the tragedy of its overthrow.
The current palace building was constructed between 1879 and 1882 under the reign of King Kalākaua, replacing an older building of the same name used by the four kings before him. In stark contrast to the old palace, which was a single-story plantation-style house, Kalākaua’s palace was designed to evoke the grand palaces of Europe. Beneath its Italian Renaissance-inspired exterior, ‘Iolani Palace was shockingly modern for its time, with indoor plumbing, electricity, and telephones installed years ahead of the White House.
It is still debated whether Kalākaua’s approach to the palace was excessive, but his choices were deliberate. The palace, in all its extravagance, was a symbol of the nation, and with increasing American and European influence in the kingdom, the king intended to show that Hawai‘i rightfully belonged within the international community of sovereign states.
In 1893, however, just two years after Kalākaua’s passing, the monarchy was overthrown by 13 pro-American businessmen looking to protect their profits. At the time, Kalākaua’s sister, Lili‘uokalani, ruled as queen and was working to restore authority to the Native Hawaiian people by overturning the 1887 constitution, which Kalākaua signed under duress and shifted significant power to the American- and European-controlled legislature. In 1895, a small faction of Hawaiian royalists attempted a counter-revolution. Lili‘uokalani was arrested for her alleged role in the uprising and placed under house arrest at the palace, where she was held for a year in a second-floor bedroom.
‘Iolani Palace was the center of the Hawaiian Kingdom for just 11 years, but within that short time, it witnessed the burgeoning potential of a sovereign people, and saw that crushed by the hand of capitalistic greed. It is this history and cultural importance that color the efforts to restore and upkeep the palace and its surrounding buildings today.
After the Overthrow, ‘Iolani Palace remained the islands’ seat of government as Hawai‘i transitioned into a U.S. territory and, later, a state. In 1969, with the completion of the Hawai‘i State Capitol building, the palace was retired after almost 90 years of continuous use. Over the years, the palace’s interior was altered to accommodate the needs of the legislature. Walls and other modifications were added, which obscured many of its original features.
“The House of Representatives occupied the throne room, the Senate occupied the dining room, and the governor’s office was upstairs,” says Glenn Mason, who has worked on palace restorations since 1979 and serves as the lead architect on the palace’s more recent renovation efforts. “Anybody who actually remembers the building at that time will tell you that it just looked shabby.”
According to Mason, “Building the capitol is what emptied the palace and allowed it to be restored.” Once the building was no longer occupied, restorers were able to go through and conduct what Mason calls “exploratory surgery,” literally breaking through the supplementary walls to uncover the original layout and long-forgotten details.
With the palace’s original materials, however, restorers were much more careful. “If you look at the koa staircase today,” Mason explains, “you can see where the new pieces went in and termite damage was repaired. You can see the patches, but that’s just an illustration of [them] saving as much of the original material as possible. They really did a wonderful job.”
While the major restoration effort was completed in 1976, individual projects have continued. However, funding is irregular, and the more time passes between projects, the more difficult they become. Mason and his firm have overseen 11 restoration phases since 1985, including the restoration of the Coronation Pavilion, roofing improvements, and exterior plaster reconstruction. Throughout this time, Mason has noticed that the materials and expertise necessary are increasingly less available. The palace’s original gates, for example, were forged rather than welded, and at the time of the 1970s restoration, Hawai‘i had a forger who could refabricate damaged posts. Today, a similar project would require contracting work in another state.
As the palace approaches its 140th birthday, there is still much to do. Paula Akana, executive director of the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, notes that the current project list is more than 200 items long, and funding is less certain than ever, as the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly reduced visitor numbers. Paradoxically, this uncertainty cements the palace’s importance to the islands. ‘Iolani Palace stands as an embodiment of the determination of the former Hawaiian Kingdom. To preserve the palace is to preserve a piece of that strength within the people of Hawai‘i today.
After the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, walls and other modifications were added to ‘Iolani Palace, which obscured many of its original features.
Behind each new floorboard and refurbished lock is an incredible amount of thought and consideration.
Those working on the palace’s upkeep pay respects not just to the building but also to the former kingdom.
While the major restoration effort was completed in 1976, individual projects have continued.
To all who enter, it is clear that ‘Iolani Palace was a place of great power.