Local Notes No. 7 – ‘Iolani Palace, the US’ Only Royal Residence

The most famous examples of Hawaiian architecture are often identified with the somewhat tropical strain of modernism that infected the islands in the postwar boom. This makes a natural degree of sense: after all, statehood and Elvis arrived in the îles Sandwiches at the zenith of the Jet Age, when PanAm established a new tourist mecca in Waikiki and the Rat Pack could be found sipping mai-tais at the bar of the Coco Palms Resort.

Image may contain Summer Plant Palm Tree Arecaceae Tree Building Architecture and Tropical
John Carl Wernecke’s Hawaii State Capitol Building, Honolulu. Source: AD

On a recent visit, though, I was equally drawn to the fine buildings constructed before annexation. The Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian Hall, built in 1889 by the firm of William F. Smith (about whom the building’s application for status in the National Register of Historic Places says “little is known”), was one of the most striking.

The Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum. Source: Gaytravel

Intended as a monument to the last member of the Kamehameha dynasty, Princess Bernice Pauahi, it’s a beautiful example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, whose elements Philadelphians may have a leg up in recognizing – I found it reminiscent of Frank Furness’ buildings, like the PAFA or Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library.

The 4-story Main Reading Room acts as a lightwell for the inner rooms surrounding it.
The unbeatable Fisher Fine Arts Library. Source: Wiki

Still more striking was the ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace ever built on US soil. Its construction began five years into the reign of King Kalākaua, on the last day of 1879. Over the course of the next three years, three architects would see the palace to completion – Thomas Baker put together the blueprints and his handiwork formed its final design, but he was sacked and moved to Australia in 1880, really just a few weeks after ground was broken. Charles Wall shipped in from a San Francisco racked by the economic spasms of the Panic of 1873 to continue the work, but he couldn’t please Kalākaua either, which left the otherwise unknown Isaac Moore to finish the job.

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‘Iolani all dolled up with the standard of Kamehameha at left. Source: the palace’s FB page lol

The Palace is undoubtedly handsome. Its masonry glimmers beige and heather green in understated contrast to the joyful bounty of its surrounding grounds. The structure sports mansard roofs in the Second Empire style and fine Corinthian columns supporting broad verandas (lana’i) fronting both floors.

Iolani Palace – MASON
Detail of the lana’i. Source: Mason

A gazebo on the southwestern corner, which still stands today, was built for Kalākaua’s coronation ceremony in 1883; other records from the kingdom period show the palace’s frequent ritual and ceremonial usage.

The gazebo decorated for the 1883 coronation. Source: iolanipalace.org

One rather ignominious ceremony the Palace was host to took place in 1898 – this was the annexation of Hawai’i by the United States, against the explicit protestation of the country’s rightful sovereign, the Queen Lili’uokalani. Marines from the USS Philadelphia decked out in their whites let down Kamehameha’s standard and rose the American flag in its place. Inside, the ex-Queen, confined to house arrest since the coup of 1893, waited and waited.

Raising the American flag at ‘Iolani Palace. Source:

The American annexation of 1898 brought an end to a century of independent dynastic rule by native Hawaiians of Hawai’i, a remarkable achievement comparable to the defenses against colonialism achieved by Thailand or Ethiopia in other periods. Kamehameha the Great, until his late 40s nothing more than one chief among chiefs on the Big Island, waged a series of wars to consolidate power beginning in the 1790s, ending in success and unification under his rule around 1810.1

King Kamehameha Statue, Oahu | Go Hawaii
Thomas Gould’s statue of Kamehameha the Great stands across from ‘Iolani on the grounds of the State Supreme Court. A replica stands in the US Capitol. Source: GoHawaii

His successor, Kamehameha II, nearly fumbled the bag on a trip to Britain – an anglophile tradition persisted in the kings of Hawai’i for several generations – but from what the record suggests, threat of the paperwork that would have ensued, as well as Kamehameha II’s untimely death from tuberculosis in London in 1824, dissuaded the British Foreign Office from outright conquering the islands and so they went on a sovereign nation in the north Pacific.

Kamehameha III faced down another British annexation attempt in 1843 and reshaped the government into a constitutional monarchy with strong rule of law. Kalākaua dramatically revamped the economy by entering into a free trade deal with the US, leading to an economic boom which attracted American business interests. When Lili’uokalani attempted to rejigger the balance of political power in the kingdom with the promulgation of the Constitution of 1893, those same interests – notably including Samuel Dole, cousin to pineapple mogul James Dole – forcibly overthrew the monarchy.

Queen Liliuokalani leaves Aliiolani Hale, 1/14/1893
Queen Lili’uokalani leaving Ai’iolani Hale, now the State Supreme Court, just across King St from ‘Iolani Palace, after announcing the new Constitution. Source: U Hawaii

Although the putschists had had the backing of the US attaché in Honolulu, by the time word reached Washington of what had happened, the mood had cooled. President Grover Cleveland thought the whole thing a miscarriage of justice and refused the coup plotters’ petitions for immediate annexation; the now Republic of Hawai’i could only then muddle along for a few years, in which intervening time a monarchist party led an abortive restoration attempt, until William McKinley could be elected President, after which the coming of American imperialism was proudly, irrevocably declared in the bowels of the USS Maine.

Sanford Ballard Dole -- Elected Legislator and Appointed Supreme Court  Justice of the Kingdom of Hawaii; President of the Provisional Government  and of the Republic of Hawaii; Governor of the Territory of
Sanford Dole inaugurated as first Governor of the Territory of Hawaii at ‘Iolani Palace, 1898. Source: this weirdo Dole apologist guy’s website

Although Dole would continue to rule from ‘Iolani during the Republic period and into his tenure as Governor of the Territory, the Palace is better memorialized in service of the lost majesty of its kings and queens. Indeed, Lili’uokalani, last queen of this magnificent monument to an independent, modern nation-state built atop mere earthen toeholds of volcanism 3000 miles away from the nearest continent, fittingly composed a song of farewell which later came to stand metonymically for the American takeover and all it meant for Hawaii: Aloha ‘Oe.

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