Fifty Years Ago, State Lawmakers Adjourned and Then Moved House
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Fifty years ago, all of Hawai‘i state government’s elected big shots — from then-Gov. John Burns and his lieutenant governor, Tom Gill, to state senators and representatives — closed their ‘Iolani Palace offices and walked across what was then Hotel Street to America’s newest state capitol building.
As they walked into Hawai‘i’s political and governmental future, they left behind the most visible physical remnant of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and its remarkable history.
Their steps took them out of a four-story ornate palace built in 1882 as the official residence of Hawai‘i’s kings and queens. After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in January 1893, ‘Iolani Palace became the home of Hawai‘i’s new government — first, the provisional government in 1893, then the republic of Hawai‘i a year later, followed by the territory of Hawai‘i in 1898 and, finally, in 1959, the state of Hawai‘i.
“When the provisional government made the palace their capitol in June of 1893, they decreed their capitol was to be called the Executive Building, most likely to remove reminders of its royal past,” said Zita Cup Choy, historian and docent educator for the organization that now oversees the building and its grounds.
Moving day was set for March 7 of 1969. Now-retired Honolulu Star-Bulletin government reporter Helen Altonn interviewed Gov. John A. Burns as he prepared to vacate the ‘Iolani Palace office he had occupied for nearly seven years. On that day, he, too, would be moving to a brand new office on the fifth floor of the State Capitol building.
“He is leaving the palace with some regrets,” Altonn wrote then.
“It’s comfortable there,” the governor told her, adding he was “bound to be a little nostalgic.”
Viewed through the lens of today’s attention to the significance of ‘Iolani Palace as a symbol of Hawai‘i’s lost monarchy and the reverence for the Hawaiian movement, the lack of taking due note in 1969 is remarkable.
“At the end of the day, it was business as usual,” Altonn said in an interview. “The trappings were gone, all the symbols were gone; it was very businesslike,” she recalled.
“I think they (Junior League of Honolulu) were ready to kick us out; they wanted to restore it,” Altonn said. “The thrones and other stuff from the monarchy were all moved out. They didn’t want the lawmakers and the press and lobbyists touching it.
“You didn’t get the feeling you were in a palace. It took away from the majesty,” Altonn remembered.
It was indeed a majesty at one time.
The Nov. 24, 1890, edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser provided this description: “A breakfast was given at ‘Iolani Palace yesterday morning in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Fowler. Those present were: Their Majesties the King and Queen . . . After the breakfast their Majesties presented Mrs. Fowler with a handsome mamo lei enclosed in a carved sandalwood case. This gift of a rare royal feather necklace is the greatest compliment that can be bestowed.”
The article went on to note: “On Friday, a committee of ladies waited upon the King to obtain his permission to have a dance at the Palace this evening. His Majesty readily consented, and the dance was given on the eve of his Majesty’s departure for the Coast.”
King Kaläkaua was already in failing health when he left Hawai‘i for San Francisco in November 1890. He died there just weeks later on Jan. 20, 1891. The king’s sister, Lili‘uokalani, had been appointed his heir apparent. She assumed the throne following Kaläkaua’s passing and moved to amend Hawai‘i’s constitution, which wealthy Caucasian plantation owners and businessmen had curtailed through the Bayonet Constitution. Lili‘uokalani restored power in the monarchy and the Hawaiian people.
On Jan. 17, 1893, the business interests overthrew the monarchy and established a provisional government, appointing Sanford B. Dole as president. Lili‘uokalani was imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace for eight months in 1895. According to the Lili‘uokalani Trust, the queen was imprisoned for her alleged knowledge of a counterrevolution by her supporters — an allegation that was never proven.
Despite the queen’s efforts to plead Hawai‘i’s case in Washington, D.C., Hawai‘i was formally annexed to the United States on Aug. 12, 1898. The Hawaiian flag was lowered over ‘Iolani Palace and a specially made 36-foot American flag was raised in its place on the central flagpole. The revolutionary victors held parades, lit up the palace and set off fireworks. A reception and ball were held later in what had once been the Throne Room.
Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual reported: “Throughout the day’s exercises, the Hawaiians were comparatively sparsely represented, except as silent and distant spectators — and who could blame them?”
The federal government was not finished with the former palace, however.
During World War II, martial law was declared in Hawai‘i, with ‘Iolani Palace serving the seat of the martial law government. The lawn surrounding the palace was dug up and turned into air raid trenches. Ancillary buildings were dragged in for the military rulers. Hawai‘i remained under martial law rule until October 1944.
After martial law had been lifted, ‘Iolani Palace returned to its role as the seat of government. Many accounts said the palace “had lost its glamour.”
Author Gwenfread Allen wrote that “rooms were partitioned, false ceilings covered some of the handsome old decorations, coils for air conditioners disfigured the walls and a small elevator had been crowded in.”
In 1967, The Honolulu Advertiser reported that “shacks were hauled to the palace grounds for [legislative] session use.”
Wooden buildings, “many in advanced stages of dry rot have been hauled onto ‘Iolani Palace grounds to serve as legislative committee rooms and office space.”
By 1967, the Star-Bulletin was announcing a “House cleaning at the Palace,” as state workers saw the end of the 1967 Legislature as time to reopen the room where the House of Representative met as the palace Throne Room.
“Following the session, state Central Services workers remove the desks of House members, clean the red rug and replace the thrones and the furniture,” the paper reported without fanfare.
Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, one of the few surviving legislators to have served in both ‘Iolani Palace and the new State Capitol, recalled that while working in the new structure, he had a sense of urgency that the old palace was special.
“When I first got elected, I really didn’t know much about what was going on. When I got there, I felt very strongly about the work we had to do.
“I respected we were in a very sacred place, so be careful that we would not damage the royal past,” said Ariyoshi, the first Japanese American elected governor in the United States. “And, I was very mindful that when I got elected, I wanted to be sure we didn’t do things that were harmful, try not to do things to ignore the past,” Ariyoshi said in an interview.
George “Red” Morris was a fresh-faced former University of Hawai‘i basketball player working as a first-time lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii in the Palace’s closing days.
“I think the place was bursting at the seams . . . and the plywood appendages that grew over the years was for a need to accommodate the entire Legislature meeting under one roof,” Morris said in an interview.
“No air conditioning — the windows were opened; that was it. The clerk’s office and House were right behind the floor. You would see everyone coming and going,” he recalled.
“You had to be chair of Finance [Committee] to get an office in the Palace. Or Judiciary [Committee] chair to get an office in the basement,” Morris said.
But restoration came, if not for the monarchy, for the splendid European-themed palace.
In its September 1967 issue, Honolulu magazine recounted the huge task facing the Junior League of Honolulu, which volunteered to launch the restoration of ‘Iolani Palace.
“Today the palace stands amid the institutional gardens of downtown Honolulu, looking less regal both inside and out. Its sides have ugly wooden structures tacked on to provide needed office space. Through the thick stone walls run holes for heavy duty cables to feed air conditioners.
“Inside, the bannisters are crumbing, having provided a meal for termites and the spacious rooms are partitioned and rendered severely functional.
“The overstuffed furniture of Hawaiian-Victorian royal has long been displaced by the desk and chairs of governors and lawmakers.
“But, there is a new day coming,” the magazine wrote in 1967.
Today, the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace are responsible for the ongoing restoration effort. The Friends’ web page explains: “Conservation treatment and painstaking reproduction of original fabrics and finishes has resulted in the restoration of Palace rooms to their monarchy era appearance. Many original Palace objects sold and dispersed at public auction have been recovered from different parts of the world — glassware found in Australia, and a table in the Governor’s mansion in Iowa, to a chair in a local thrift store. The quest to find original Palace furnishings and artifacts continues.”
Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.