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Iolani Palace: A Palace in America

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Ward is interested in all things travel and runs the Castles in America website. He's also currently working on a fantasy novel.

Iolani Palace, Honolulu, HI

Iolani Palace, Honolulu, HI

The island paradise of Hawaii used to be a kingdom before becoming a US territory in 1898 and a US state in 1959, and in the kingdom of Hawaii, its kings and queens reigned over their Pacific realm in the Iolani Palace. Built in a singular style of architecture, actually the only building in the world with this style of architecture, called American Florentine, the Iolani Palace is truly palatial. It has a first floor of 34,000 square feet, a basement of 13,000 square feet, and a second floor of 42,000 square feet. The grounds on 11 acres of sun-kissed Hawaiian land just minutes from the beach consist of a barracks for the King’s Guard, a coronation pavilion — now a bandstand area, a fenced in burial mound for unnamed Hawaiian chiefs laid to rest there, which also used to be a cemetery for Hawaiian monarchs during the time of the kingdom.

The inside has features that any castle would drool over! As in any kingdom, the palace would hold the affairs of the state and Iolani Palace was no different. The basement held the kitchen, guest rooms, and government offices of the king’s men. The second floor was the king’s private area with their private suites and rooms like the Music Room and the library. Their actual quarters weren’t called master suites like every other mega mansion. In the Iolani Palace, they were called the King and Queen’s Suites and it was meant literally!

The first floor has the most envy inducing features. It was the main area for the business of state so, as is customary for a monarch, it would have a public reception area like the Grand Hall with a staircase made of native koa wood, the State Dining Room for visiting dignitaries such as presidents, other kings, and prime ministers, the Blue Room for informal audiences with the king which also has a portrait of King Louis Philippe of France hanging on its walls, and check this out, there’s an honest to God throne room.

In movies, advisors or ambassadors and representatives of governments would enter a throne room and seek an audience with the king or queen. At Iolani Palace, its throne room does the same thing. A king and queen’s throne is set up atop a dais with seating on the sides for advisors or other important personnel. No other mega mansion in the US could brag about that!

King Kamehameha V of the House of Kamehameha built the first Iolani Palace and named it in honor of his late brother. “Io” meant a native Hawaiian Hawk that flies higher than the rest and “Lani” meaning heavenly or royal. Previously named Hale Ali’i meaning ‘house of the chief,” King Kalakaua, a worldly king who saw other palaces on his travels, constructed the present day Iolani Palace and he wanted the new palace to be a worthy palace for the Hawaiian monarchy.

And he didn’t scrimp and save for this one! Costing an astronomical for the time $340,000, the Iolani Palace not only had the most refined features using Pennsylvania slate for the roof, San Francisco etched glass, Pacific Northwest cedar, and of course, native Hawaiian materials like koa and kamani woods, but Iolani was also on the cutting edge technologically for its time. The Palace had hot and cold running water with flushing toilets, electric lighting even before the White House had one, and a telephone system, a revolutionary technology in the period.

But alas, it’s a game of thrones after all and Iolani Palace would not host the kings and queens of Hawaii for long. A coup, with the help of US marines, deposed Queen Liliuokalani on January of 1893. The Hawaiian monarchs were no strangers to uprisings and palace intrigue, but the conspirators like American diplomat John L. Stevens beat them at their game and finally succeeded in overthrowing the monarch. With hostile forces outside Iolani Palace, the last Queen of Hawaii surrendered her throne peaceably and soon began her house arrest in Iolani and later in another residence called Washington Place.

Hawaii became the Republic of Hawaii and soon formally annexed by the United States in 1898, a prize most noted for its strategic location in the middle of the Pacific and as a waystation for even further possessions at the time like the Philippines. Upon annexation with celebrations outside, Queen Liliuokalani and her royal court sent out a photograph. All were downcast.

Queen Liliuokalani and her court at Washington Place, now the Governor's mansion, on the day of annexation

Queen Liliuokalani and her court at Washington Place, now the Governor's mansion, on the day of annexation

After the overthrow, Iolani Palace became known simply as the Executive Building. The riches of Iolani were auctioned off to the highest bidder, items that Hawaiian officials today are trying to reclaim. Iolani served a second life shortly after as the administration building for the territory of Hawaii and later as the state capitol for the new state of Hawaii. Today, Iolani Palace and its grounds are now a museum in downtown Honolulu, but behind Iolani, the business of government continues in the modernist Hawaiian State Capitol built in 1969, ending Iolani’s reign as a seat of power.