The royal place of Hawaiian sovereigns only palace in America, now a museum of its legacy

Written by: 
Antoniette Yee & Kevin Brown

Iolani Palace remained a royal residence up until the reign of Queen Lili´uokalani, said Hardy Spoehr, a palace tour guide. Originally constructed in 1882 by King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii built the palace at a cost of about $330,000, a figure Spoehr said would be equivalent to millions of dollars today.

“At the time of its completion, you could see ships coming into the harbor. Buildings have now since been built up in front of the palace on landfill,” he said.

Also on palace grounds stands the Hale Koa Barracks, which Spoehr said housed approximately 60 royal guards for the kingdom.

“If you were a main guest, you would have been challenged by a palace guard where you would have been asked for the secret password in order to enter the palace,” said Spoehr.

Spoehr told of two unique features of the palace, one of them being the entrance doors. “It’s one of the oddities of the palace. The glass is crystal made in England and etched in San Francisco,” he said. A recent break-in damaged two of these windows, and for the palace to be in the original form, Spoehr said the windows will have to be ordered through the same places.

The second oddity is the palace lighting. “You notice how there aren’t any light switches? It’s a comprehensive direct light system through the palace. All of the lights are on, or all of the lights are off,” he said.

“King Kalakaua met with Thomas Edison in his lab in New Jersey, and they diagramed a schematic for the electrification of the palace,” he said. According to Hawaii-Nation.org, Iolani Palace had electricity and telephones installed several years before the White House.

The Dining Room of the palace was used for formal dining like other royal palaces, added Spoehr. “In those days, there was no radio, television, or cell phones. The major means of communication was oral.”

Spoehr explained, “The king would always place himself in the middle of the table because if you were invited to partake of a meal here, he expected a conversation.”

The rooms and hallways of the bottom floor are lavished with portraits of Hawaiian monarchy and international nobility, including that of French King Louis Philippe, who made of himself the largest painting in the palace’s collection and presented it to King Kamehameha III. Spoehr said it was for the commemoration of the Kingdom’s first treaty with France.

“It took up almost the whole wall of the original palace,” said Spoehr.

The Music Room, often called the Gold Room, served as an important room for social gatherings, as all the monarchs were very much involved with music, said Spoehr. In the Music Room rests the original throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii used by Kamehameha III, IV, and V.

In order to ascend the koa wood Grand Hall staircase, Spoehr said guests had to receive special invitations to visit the top floor of the palace where the monarchs lived.

The doorknobs inside the palace are also low. “Nobody really knows why,” explained Spoehr. “The most possible reason is when people open the door, they are forced to bow to the royalty.”

When Queen Lili´uokalani was unlawfully overthrown in 1893 on suspicions of trying to restore her kingdom’s sovereignty, Spoehr said she was eventually quarantined to a corner room in the palace for eight months.

He said she received flowers wrapped in newspapers from her supporters. “For that reason, she was able to read what was going on in the community.”

As for the originality of the palace today, Spoehr said it is a work in progress. “After the king died, a lot of the furniture was taken by his wife, the queen. She auctioned off a lot of the items to support herself because she was no longer the queen.

“The government also was able to auction some of it off. Now, throughout the years, it has been making its way back to the palace. We are about 60 percent complete, the other 40 percent of items, including the king’s bed, are still out there.”

Spoehr said he encourages people to look in antique shops around the islands, and even the world, for A.H. Davenport consignments, the manufacturer in Boston that supplied most of the palace’s furniture.

In part of the restoration process, he said volunteers use black and white photos taken in that era to try and best fit the original rugs and furniture.

Spoehr said of his experience as a tour guide, “I have been working here for a year, and it has been an excellent experience. I feel like I’m a part of continuing legacy.”

Alysa Natarte, a tourist from California visiting the palace, said, “I absolutely love the historical elements of the tour. It teaches someone like me, who is not Hawaiian and doesn’t know much about Hawaii, a massive amount of culture and a great appreciation for the islands.”

Every second Sunday of the month is Kama´aina Sunday at Iolani Palace, and the entrance fee is free for locals, said Spoehr.

“All students of BYU-Hawaii, please come on the second Sunday, or if there are classes that want to come, contact us. We’d love to help you folks,” he said.

For visitors wanting a taste of music, Spoehr said The Royal Hawaiian Band, started by King Kamehameha III, also performs every Friday afternoon on the palace grounds. The band is the oldest municipal band in the nation, according to Hawaii Magazine.

Date Published: 
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, September 2, 2017

NOTE: This article is featured in the Sept. 2017 print issue.