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Touring Iolani Palace -- the Only Royal Palace on U.S. Soil


By Sharon Whitley Larsen

"Please put these booties on over your shoes," requested the volunteer as a small group of us sat on a back veranda of Honolulu's Iolani Palace prior to taking a tour. She then passed out audio headphones to those of us who had purchased them with our admission tickets. When she noticed that I was holding a notepad and pen, she quickly handed me a pencil: "Please use this, no pens are allowed inside the palace."

It's not surprising that staff members, respectful of Iolani Palace, a National Historic Landmark, want to keep its interior pristine. After all, it has taken years of collecting money, tracking down period furnishings and antiques, hard work and dedication for its restoration to become the gem it is today.

Although we weren't able to walk through the etched crystal front door as members of foreign royalty, diplomats and other distinguished guests did in yesteryear, entering through the back door was fine with me. Just the fact that I was able to tour this magnificent palace — the only royal residence on U.S. soil — was thrilling. We would be touring several restored rooms, including the Throne Room, State Dining Room, Blue Room, Library, Music Room, Queen Lili'uokalani's Prison Chamber, and the royal bedroom suites.

"Iolani Palace is one of my favorite places to take mainland visitors," said Barbara Burke of Honolulu. "They are always delighted by the palace's rich history, beautiful antiques and tranquil surroundings."

Iolani, which means "royal or heavenly hawk," was completed in 1882. But after the monarchy ended a decade later (Hawaii was annexed to the United States in 1898 and became a state in 1959), the palace was emptied of its treasures. Many were auctioned off, some donated to the Bishop Museum.

For decades Iolani was used as government offices or a museum, and then it fell into disrepair and neglect. Restoration work of some rooms began in 1969, and it was opened, unfurnished, to the public in 1978. During the 1980s, through the dedicated work of the Friends of Iolani Palace and the Junior League of Honolulu — as well as millions in private donations and government grants — the palace was finally restored to its historic glory.

Iolani Palace, with its "American Florentine" architecture, was built to replace the original dilapidated palace that had been demolished in 1874. The official residence of Hawaii's last reigning monarch from 1882 until 1893, the palace was the center of the Islands' political and social life, with festive dinners and parties lasting past midnight.

The royal reign all started with King Kamehameha I, a longtime chief on the Island of Hawaii who was responsible for unifying the Islands. He had established the Hawaiian monarchy in 1796 and by 1820 had created the Hawaiian Kingdom. Prior to 1845, the kingdom was wherever the king was living — on Maui, the Island of Hawaii or Oahu. That year Honolulu was chosen as the king's permanent capital, and the former governor's mansion became the palace.

After generations of various royal successors, a new heir, King Kalakaua, and his wife, Queen Kapi'olani, who had no children, moved into the new palace, living here from 1882 until 1891.

Nicknamed the "Merrie Monarch" because of his love for world travel, fun parties, music and dancing, King Kalakaua supervised the palace's three-year, $344,000 construction. Ahead of his time, he had electricity installed, which even the White House didn't have then. There was also a telephone, "intercom" system, dumb waiter and several bathrooms with flush toilets, unheard of in those days. These included a guest bathroom downstairs and four full baths with Italian marble washbasins and hot and cold running water in the second-floor apartments, a rare luxury.

The king's included a copper-lined tub that was 7 feet by 2 feet and 2 feet deep — the perfect stress-reliever for a relaxing royal.

Born in 1836, King Kalakaua had been a military aide to King Kamehameha IV. Fluent in English, he met many foreign dignitaries who visited the Islands, including the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria's son, whom he escorted on a Hawaiian tour. He also loved music and composed several songs, including the Hawaiian national anthem. Concerned about the decline of the native Hawaiian population, he worked to preserve the culture. In 1874 he traveled to the United States, where he addressed the U.S. Congress, outlining the need for a better trade agreement and an important sugar treaty.

When I first entered the Grand Hall, with its gleaming wood floors and massive koa wood staircase (which the servants also used since it's the only one), I noticed high on the walls 10 oil portraits of Hawaii's past kings and queens. Just to the left of the front entry is the Blue Room, where guests would wait to see the king or attend small receptions. They would also gather around the grand piano to sing with the musically gifted royals.

Through massive koa sliding wood doors I then entered the State Dining Room, where the tables, once laden with china from France, Bohemian crystal and exquisite silver, could seat up to 40 guests. The Royal Hawaiian Band would play polkas, waltzes or opera excerpts outside on the veranda as the servants dutifully waited on everyone.

The Throne Room, across the entrance hall, was the site of many elegant, festive celebrations, sometimes with 500 guests, and it is said that the king remembered all their names. This room was also the site of the royal funeral of King Kalakaua, who died in 1891 at age 54. He was succeeded by his younger sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, a devout Christian who had married her childhood sweetheart and had a gift of languages.

But she reigned only two years until she was overthrown by businessmen who planned to form a provisional government in 1893. She then moved to Washington Place, now the Governor's Mansion. In 1895, when royalists rebelled to have her reinstated as queen, she was arrested, brought to trial in the Throne Room and found guilty of concealing their plans. She was then imprisoned in the palace.

In a bleak upstairs corner room with a single bed the last reigning queen of Hawaii spent eight months under guard. It's eerie to see the quilt that she made during her confinement displayed here, noting: "Imprisoned at Iolani Palace Jan. 17, 1895." She spent her days in daily devotion, sewing, reading and composing music. A framed photo displayed in another room shows happier times of Lili'uokalani with Queen Kapi'olani attending Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in London.

Following Lili'uokalani's release, she returned to Washington Place, where she remained until her death in 1917. At her request, her estate auctioned off her jewelry and other personal items to support orphaned children. (She is the subject of a new book from Atlantic Monthly Press, "Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure" by Julia Flynn Siler.)

In 1993, the palace was draped in black, commemorating the centennial of the royal overthrow.

"Iolani Palace is a dramatic reminder of Hawaii as a sovereign nation," noted my audio tour. "The palace was the center of great turmoil, a sacred area. It is a reminder of how things once were."


For more information about tours and events at Iolani Palace:

Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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