Iolani Palace links past, present and future

By Malia Wong Leong
Honolulu CC Journalism 204 student

Along the edge of Honolulu’s busy downtown business district, you begin to notice stately mansions and historic buildings. Though each building holds a unique history perfectly preserved and often overlooked in our fast-paced, overworked life and society, one property sets itself apart and warrants just a bit more of our attention.

Nestled in the heart of the Honolulu’s government buildings sits a beautiful white palace with lush green grass and crested wrought iron fence surround. Despite its seemingly small stature, Iolani Palace beckons with its classic architecture, colorful history and stately grace. On any given day you can find the grounds being enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.On this particular sunny day, with its picture-perfect backdrop, Evangeline, a first-time visitor from England, corralled her family together for a photo in front of the only official royal residence in the United States.

“The educational tour provided, beautifully highlighted the complex social and political structure of the Hawaiian people,” said Evangeline, a history professor. Her daughter Angelica chimed in stating “I was astonished to learn that Hawaii had a royal family much as we do back home.”

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Simultaneously, off in the distance a local family, the Heus, were stretched out on the lawn enjoying the cool shade of the trees while partaking in a picnic lunch anxiously awaiting the weekly Royal Hawaiian Band Performance at the gazebo.

“We try to come out whenever we can to take advantage of the free concert and hula performances,” the parents said between the laughter and excitement of their toddler happily snacking on handfuls of goldfish.

Oahu, known as “the gathering place,” would also serve as the home of Hawaii’s crowing jewel. Iolani Palace served as the centralized location of political and social life while also bringing people together to enjoy grand balls, public hula performances and other cultural activities. Established in 1845 by King Kamehameha III as the official royal residence, the original home demolished in 1874 was replaced by the larger, modernized palace of today by King Kalakaua in 1882.

Believed to have been the site of a heiau, the palace grounds with its manicured lawns and fortified armory, previously enjoyed sweeping views of Honolulu, including Honolulu harbor. Beyond serving as the royal residence for the last five monarchs, Iolani Palace has played a pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom as well as the establishment of United States’ rule. Following the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, the palace retained its powerful purpose and was utilized as the Capitol for 80 years prior to being vacated and restored in the 1970’s.


Purchase your tour tickets in the armory and prepare yourself for a journey through time, beginning with a short introductory video outlining the history and significance of this sacred place. Following this introduction, visitors are assembled on the large covered porch with its wooden pews and wide expanse, similar to a church for last minute reminders and distribution of shoe covers to protect the delicate floors within the palace. Sweeping views of the building before you, draws the eye to the floor-to-ceiling windows which were designed to also be utilized as doorways and the wrap around porch and deck.


Stepping through those large doors is like stepping through the hands of time. Upon entrance into the public reception area, mesmerized by the Hawaiian Koa staircase uniquely built to occupy the same footprint, connects the public and private areas of the palace. Gazing at the ornate staircase with its glistening sheen, visions of lavish ball gowns and coat tails descending the grand staircase begin to swirl, transporting you back to the 1800’s.

Just like a guest from the past you are taken on a journey through the public reception area, the state dining room where the room would have been filled with intoxicating aromas as food was served on china featuring the King’s coat of arms. Whisked away to the blue room filled with artifacts and music reminding visitors that this museum was once full of life and laughter. The journey of the first floor culminates in the grand hall. Entrance to the grand hall brings new life to the vision as the gilded throne, glittering chandelier and ballroom floor yield to echoes of the music and dancing that once filled its walls.


Venturing to the second floor, better known as the private suites, you are once again greeted with a flood of sunlight guiding you through the King and Queen suites, the music room and the imprisonment room.

Located on opposite sides of the floor, the King and Queen suites provide an opportunity to marvel at the intricacies of their furnishings and hobbies. While the King was provided a suite within the Palace, he actually resided in one of the smaller residences on site.

Sadly, once a joyous home full of music and laughter, the Queen would be imprisoned in isolation accompanied by one ladies’ maid and her songbird in a small room within the palace. It is within this room that she composed many melodies still sung and heard today. Additionally, on display within this very small room is a Hawaiian Quilt hand stitched by the Queen with various dates, symbols and phrases.

Furnishings in the private suites are extremely minimal. When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown, furnishings, art and other elements deemed unnecessary for government work within the palace were either given away or auctioned off, thus resulting in their spread throughout the world.


Walking the halls of the private suite. you are reminded of just how modern the palace really was for its time. King Kalakaua though interested in technology and the future, also played a vital role in perpetuating and reinvigorating Hawaiian culture. Many of the conveniences we appreciate today such as indoor plumbing, telephone and electricity are all present. King Kalakaua, just a short seven years after installation, replaced gas chandeliers with electric lights and was also a pioneer in indoor plumbing with the inclusion of flush toilets. In addition to plumbing and electricity, the palace was outfitted with a telephone, dumbwaiter for convenience and an expansive kitchen which boasted quarters for servants who also enjoyed the pleasures of indoor plumbing and electricity.


Protection, restoration and education are at the forefront of the Friends of Iolani Palace’s mission. As a collective they tirelessly work to locate and restore elements of the palace and its contents while simultaneously working to increase and expand the education of all to the complex innerworkings of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Isaac, a palace volunteer, echoed this mission stating, “Individuals gathering to enjoy the beauty of the palace grounds while engaging in the cultural sharing is the true essence of the palace.”


While amazed by the expansive rooms, ornate woodwork, paintings, and unique furnishings, you are also reminded of the beauty and strength of the past through the weapons, jewelry and clothing all perfectly preserved and on display. Allowing for a few hours to casually explore and experience all the palace has to offer, a newfound sense of astonishment washes over you like a wave as you bask in the sunlight as it washes the rooms.


The palace provides daily tours with the options of a docent led or self-guided with the aid of listening devices. Plan accordingly for potentially long waits and limited parking. For kama’aina and military, be sure to take advantage of kama’aina Sundays offering free admission coupled with free street parking, making for an affordable family day full of learning. For those seeking a unique experience, be sure to check out the annual evening tours celebrating Queen Kapiolani’s birthday on Dec. 31.

These evening tours featuring a variety of special events including music and food will be taking place beginning Saturday. Dec. 28, 2019 with tickets both for evening and regular day tours available online.

In addition to the tours, enjoy Friday concerts presented by the Royal Hawaiian Band often featuring hula accompaniment, and be sure to sign up for various classes presented by Friends of Iolani Palace including Hawaiian Quilt making and various lectures by Hawaiian cultural leaders. For those looking to add a touch of royal elegance to their next event, considering renting one of the many areas within the palace grounds.


Iolani Palace for many serve as a unique opportunity to witness first-hand the lifestyle and culture of the last reigning monarch within Hawaii. For others it provides clarity and understanding to the complex social structure and advance education of the people of Hawaii while simultaneously providing a historical context of the struggles of the Hawaiian people. Modeled after the castles of Europe, King Kalakaua, having been the first reigning monarch to circumnavigate the globe brought elements of his travels to islands of Hawaii and helped propel the people into the future while providing a lasting link to the past.


Hawaii is full of history and culture, so next time you’re taking a drive along King Street, maybe even in the coming weeks as you enjoy in the annual Christmas lights, you’ll take a closer look at Iolani Palace and be reminded of the importance of understanding the past while looking toward the future.










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