The only royal palace in the U.S. territory was a local administration building, a military headquarters and a prison for the queen
In 1882, a new residence for the monarchs was opened in the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was supposed to strengthen the country’s sovereignty and status as a modern state. But just 11 years later, this palace witnessed the dramatic fall of the island monarchy.
The site of Iolani Palace had been the royal residence since King Kameameaamea III of Hawaii moved the capital from Lahaina to Honolulu in 1845. At that time, the building was called the Hale Alii (Chief’s House) and was a traditional Hawaiian dwelling, not the European-style palace we see today. The modern structure appeared almost 30 years later, with the accession to the throne of King David Kalakaua.
King Kalakaua was the first Hawaiian ruler to visit the United States and travel around the world. “A “merry monarch” known for his love of socializing and entertainment, he was an active advocate for Hawaiian arts and culture, including the revival of the hula dance, which had been banned since 1830. In 1874, early in his reign, Kalakaua found the building in a state of disrepair and decided that the Kingdom of Hawaii should have a palace that would announce the country’s presence on the modern political landscape. At the time, the building had already been renamed “Iolani Palace” by King Kameameaamea V in honor of his brother, whose name in turn means “king’s hawk.”
The old house was demolished and the foundation of the new Iolani Palace was laid on December 31, 1879. The building, completed by 1882, is considered the finest example of Hawaiian Renaissance architecture, characterized by the fusion of ancient Italianate forms with Hawaiian elements, resulting in sleek, picturesquely decorated facades with graceful columns and wide verandas. The palace’s appearance is so unusual that it has earned its own unique name: it is the only American-Florentine building in the world.
In 1891, Kalakaua died in unsuccessful attempts to cure himself of kidney disease in San Francisco. His sister, Queen Liliuokalani, became heir to the throne. However, her plans to strengthen the Hawaiian monarchy and establish suffrage for Hawaiian residents only quickly drew fierce and powerful protests from Hawaiian-born, naturalized, and foreign-born Americans. With the help of the American envoy to Hawaii, the “Committee of Safety” shut down the Liliuokalani government, and she was forced to cede power in 1893. A subsequent attempt to restore the monarchy led to Liliuokalani’s arrest, her complete abdication, and a humiliating public trial held in the throne room of Iolani Palace. After the trial, she was under house arrest for nine months in a room on the second floor of the palace.
After the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Iolani Palace served at various times as the seat of the provisional and territorial government, the military governor (while Hawaii was under martial law during World War II), and finally the state government after the islands were admitted to the United States in 1959. However, John Burns, the first governor of the new state, quickly moved the state offices elsewhere and undertook a project to restore Iolani Palace to its former splendor. In 1969, the building officially ceased to be the state capitol and did not reopen until 1978, already as a museum.
The museum seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the times when Iolani Palace was the official royal residence: original fabrics are carefully recreated and furniture that was sold by the provisional government at public auctions after the successful coup is searched from all over the world. Visitors to the complex can see the original throne room, the great hall and state dining room, the king’s and queen’s apartments, and the room where Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned and where the patchwork quilt she sewed during her months of imprisonment is still preserved.