‘Iolani Palace is the former official residence of Hawai’i’s monarchy, and the only royal palace in the United States of America. Built by King Kalākaua (1836-1891) on the site of a previous royal residence, this exquisite and opulent palace saw beginning of construction on December 31, 1879, and in December of 1882, King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi’olani moved in. The Palace soon became the center of social life for the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
Just to give you a little historical background: though mostly known as King David Kalākaua, his full name was as long as Hawaiian royal tradition demands: David La’amea Kamanakapu’u Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua. It is a mouthful, I know, and I can only read my way through it without a glitch because of my eleven years in Hawai’i. But I used to get quite tongue-tied in the beginning.
King Kalākaua was also known as The Merrie Monarch because of his patronage of culture and arts and his enjoyment of socializing and entertaining. He is the one who encouraged the transcription of Hawaiian oral traditions, and supported the revival and public performances of the Hula, which had been banned earlier in the century by Queen Ka’ahumanu. The Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long festival of Hula that takes place in Hilo every year around Easter, is held in his honor.
Among his many talents and strengths, Kalākaua was also an innovator, and he had the royal palace outfitted with the most up-to-date amenities, including indoor plumbing and telephone, and had the originally installed gas chandeliers replaced five years later by electric lighting, several years ahead of the White House.
Upon his death, which occurred at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on January 20, 1891, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him to the throne. Sadly, Queen Lili’uokalani was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. On January 14th, 1893, merely two years after she became Queen, a group composed of American and European businessmen staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom, deposing the Queen, and then seeking annexation by the United States. You can read more details about this here (wikipedia), and here (‘Iolani Palace website).
On January 16th, 1895, Queen Lili’uokalani was arrested following a failed attempt by her supporters to restore her and her party to power. She was imprisoned in a second floor room of ‘Iolani Palace for almost eight months. It was during her imprisonment that Lili’uokalani, an accomplished musician and composer with approximately 165 songs under her belt, among which the famous Aloha Oe, wrote the song Ke Aloha O Ka Haku – The Queen’s Prayer.
In 1993, one-hundred years after the overthrow, President Clinton signed a Congressional resolution in which the United States government formally apologized to the Native Hawaiian people.
The movie Princess Ka’iulani – though not entirely historically correct, and following the Princess’ own story for the most part – provides a dramatization of part of this story in modern movie format. When Lili’uokalani became Queen, she immediately appointed Ka’iulani her heir. Had the overthrow never happened, the beautiful Princess would have inherited the Kingdom.
Over the years, the Palace has gone through extensive remodeling and restorations, and the ones that result in what we can see today began in the 1960s, after Hawai’i became a state. On December 29, 1962 ‘Iolani Palace was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1969 Government offices moved to the newly built Hawai’i State Capitol building. In 1978 ‘Iolani Palace opened to the public.
The efforts to restore the palace to its original appearance were quite extensive, with thorough research by professional museum staff and acquisitions researchers. Many original Palace objects have been returned, and original fabrics and finishes were recreated to restore the rooms to their monarchy era appearance.
This work continues to this day, and the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace – who are in charge of its maintenance and management – are still conducting a worldwide search for artifacts and furnishings that were once part of the royal collections.
The name ‘Iolani means Heavenly Hawk, or Royal Hawk: ‘Io is the Hawaiian hawk, and Lani means heaven, or heavenly, a word you will often notice used as people’s names or part of names. The Palace used to be called Hale Ali’i (House of the Chiefs), but Kamehameha V changed its name in honor of his brother Kamehameha IV, whose full given name was Alexander Liholiho Keawenui ‘Iolani.
Visiting the Palace is quite an experience: fascinating, intense, beautiful, happy and sad all at the same time, and both my visits are forever embedded in my memory.
For my first one I joined a group of Hawaiian friends, and together we joined one of the docent-guided tours. The energy in the palace is quite intense, and I know first hand that often visitors hear and see people and sounds from other times/dimensions, especially those who are more open to these things. But even those who do not see and hear still can perceive, usually sadness, particularly in the room where Queen Lili’uokalani spent her imprisonment. My friend’s 12-years-old daughter kept bursting into tears without a logical reason, but then logic has nothing to do with these things, does it? I did not cry, but I still felt the sadness, and perceived extrasensory movement and sound in certain moments, even if just fleetingly.
I have talked about this with some of the curators at the Palace and we have explored various possibilities. These include both the fact that, indeed, some people are able to see/hear through the veil and access other parallel times/dimensions, and that what they perceive may be the past, or another version of the present; and also the fact that, over the years, all the many visitors, who usually become saddened as they hear the story of the overthrow and Lili’uokalani’s imprisonment, have left behind some of their own energy with traces of the sadness. This frequently happens on sacred sites and in places with strong emotional history, like old castles, battlefields and such, especially those visited by many people.
I wondered at the time if the grounds on which the Palace was built used to be one of such sacred sites, possibly where an ancient heiau (place of worship) might have been. This thought was later confirmed when I read this on the Palace’s website: “The significance of the land where the Palace and gardens are located stretches back to antiquity, and it is thought to have been the site of an ancient heiau (place of worship).”
My second visit was my favorite, because it was especially arranged at seven in the morning so I could move around and take these photos and be finished before the tours started at nine. I had been meaning to photograph ‘Iolani Palace for a blog post for some time, and I wanted good photos, not snapshots, so I followed protocol. I contacted the Palace explaining my reasons for wishing to take professional photos and requesting permission. They e-mailed me back right away, and, after a little paperwork was taken care of, we set up a date and time in which I would meet the curator who would give me access to the Palace and walk around with me.
You have to know that, in Hawai’i, people are usually very kind and helpful. They do their best to be of assistance and do so with graciousness and a genuine smile on their face. This was true again on that morning at ‘Iolani Palace. The curator not only gave me access and walked around with me, but opened all the shutters so I could have natural light, and then closed them again to protect the fabrics from the sun, which can be powerful even early in the morning in Hawai’i. As we slowly walked from room to room, we also had a chance to talk and connect on a personal level, which always adds to the pleasure of the experience. We started on the main floor, then went upstairs, then back down again to the lower level to explore the museum rooms.
The image above are actually two photos places side by side. I found the information on these two panels quite fascinating, so I photographed them. In case you might be interested in reading them, too, I will transcribe the text here.
Panel on the left –
Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ‘ikena a ka Hawai’i.
Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians.
Hawaiian monarchs forged international connections by becoming members of the Freemasons, a fraternal organization that originated in Europe. King Kalākaua was the third Hawaiian sovereign to be elevated to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. He was a member of Lodge le Progres de l’oceania No. 124 Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, constituted in 1843 under the Supreme Council of France. He served as Worshipful Master two years after he became King in 1876, and was active in Masonry until his death in 1891. The cornerstone of ‘Iolani Palace was laid in 1879 with full Masonic rites. After the Palace was completed, a Masonic banquet was the first official banquet held in the new royal residence.
Alongside his active participation as a Mason, King Kalākaua founded the Hale Nauā Society, whose purpose was to research Hawaiian traditional knowledge and practices. Before the monarchy era, Hale Nauā had functioned as a chiefly society based on genealogy. King Kalākaua based his revived version of Hale Nauā on Masonic rituals and structure. Membership was limited to Hawaiians, and meetings were conducted in the Hawaiian language. As a result of its exclusivity and focus, Hale Nauā was denounced as “unholy” and “barbaric” by the non-native press and community. Hale Nauā reflected Kalākaua’s efforts to record and perpetuate Hawaiian wisdom threatened by rapid population decline and westernization.
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Panel on the right –
I hele i kauhale, pa’a pū’olo i ka lima.
In going to the houses of others, take a package in the hand.
The practice of gift-giving is deeply embedded in Polynesian cultures. Gifts exchanged between individuals and families are symbolic of reciprocal social ties and community relations. Gifts were offered to the gods in supplication and thanks for protection and prosperity. Gifts presented to high chiefs honored their social status and invoked their social and spiritual responsibility toward the maka’ainana, or commoners. Ho’okupu, which means growth or sprouting, is a ritual or ceremonial gift given to nurture the relationship between giver and receiver, or in return for Mana, spiritual energy. Ho’okupu given to the King honored his standing as the foremost Ali’i as well as confirmed his paternal or political ties.
The King’s 50th birthday Jubilee was celebrated in grand style at ‘Iolani Palace from November 15th to the 29th, 1886. The festivities included receptions, processions, a grand luau for 500, a ball, sports competitions, and a state dinner. The King received over 300 gifts from his subjects, family members, friends, and foreign dignitaries, including more than 150 calabashes and 100 kahilis. Many of the treasures in ‘Iolani Palace were Jubilee gifts.
All of this was in the late summer of 2013. Yes, this blog post has been a long time in coming, but it was not long after I took these images that I found out I would have to move – again – and decided to make the big move to California that I had been considering. I have since moved two more times, and there you have it.
Besides, on the morning of my photo tour I was unable to take photos of the outside of the Palace because they were working on restructuring the air conditioning, and large equipment and protective barriers were stationed against the building on the right. That was not very photogenic, and it was much more than I scared to photoshop out. Then the move happened, and it was not until my recent return trip to the Islands this past October that I was able to complete my photo self-assignment with photos of the exterior and of the garden.
To make sure nothing might happen to interfere, I went to the Palace on the same afternoon I arrived in Honolulu, right after landing and picking up my rental car.
Just a little more: “Iolani Palace is also host to many events throughout the calendar year, and every June it becomes the gathering place and starting point for the Kamehameha Floral Parade in honor of King Kamehameha’s birthday, which is June 11th.
I hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour of ‘Iolani Palace, and are maybe inspired to visit this beautiful Palace the next time you are in Honolulu. You can find all information about visiting at this page on their site.
I am very grateful to the curator and the Friends of Iolani Palace for their graciousness and kindness.
I do not think I have ever felt such reverence in preparing a blog post as I have for this one. Hawai’i is not only the home of my heart, but a place where I feel very strongly I have had many other lives. I feel a deep love and profound respect for this ‘Aina and her people.
364 South King Street, Honolulu, Hi 96813 | website