Hawaii: Iolani Palace, Honolulu Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Iolani Palace was the seat of government for the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1882 until the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. It was the official residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarchs of Hawaii. It then served as the capitol of the provisional government of Hawaii (1893-1894), the republic of Hawaii (1894-1900), the territory of Hawaii (1900-1959), and the state of Hawaii (1959-present) until a new state capitol building was ready for occupancy in 1969. The palace was reopened to the public as a historic museum in 1978 under the administration of the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, a nonprofit citizens’ group established in 1966 to encourage the preservation and restoration of the palace.

Site Office

Friends of ‘Iolani Palace

P.O. Box 2259

Honolulu, HI 96804

ph.: (808) 522-0822

Web site: www.openstudio.hawaii.edu/iolani

Iolani Palace was completed in 1882 under the sponsorship of Hawaii’s last king, King Kalakaua. It occupies a site that has been sacred to Native Hawaiians, the indigenous people of the islands, for hundreds of years. It is the last in a series of royal palaces that were called‘iolani, a reference to the high-flying Hawaiian hawk that once signified Hawaiian royalty.

The cornerstone of the present Iolani Palace was laid on December 31, 1879. It replaced an earlier palace of the same name near the same site that had been torn down because of termite damage. The new Iolani Palace was built at a cost to the Kingdom of Hawaii of approximately $360,000.

Iolani Palace is constructed of plastered brick and iron. It has four stories, including an attic and a basement. It has a square tower in the center of the front and back of the building and four smaller towers, one on each corner of the building. Verandas, supported by cast-iron Corinthian columns, run along all four sides of the building on both the first and second floors. Large glass windows line the verandas. The architectural style of the palace was dubbed American Florentine in an early newspaper article, a reference to its ornate exterior. However, the palace is surprisingly modest in size, measuring only 140 feet by 100 feet.

King Kalakaua took a lively interest in the construction of his palace. Consequently, it featured amenities that were decidedly modern for the time, including four full bathrooms on the second floor as well as two “water closets” for guests on the first floor. Even after he moved into the palace in late 1882, King Kalakaua continued to add innovations. For example, gas chandeliers initially lighted the building. After seeing electric lights in Paris in 1881, the king was determined to have them installed in the palace. By 1886 electric lights illuminated the palace verandas. In 1887 electricity was installed in the main rooms. A modern telephone, installed in 1883, allowed the king to talk to his household staff and to his friends who were connected to the city telephone system.

Inside Iolani Palace

During the eleven years that the palace served as the seat of government for Hawaii and home to Hawaiian royalty, the first floor was used for formal functions and the second floor provided living space for the royal family. The basement housed kitchens and storerooms, as well as offices for the household staff. The large attic was used principally as an airspace to keep the lower floors cool.

Guests invited to Iolani Palace almost always entered it through its main front doors. They then found themselves in the Grand Hall, an area constructed of polished wood lined with oil portraits of Hawaii’s kings and queens. A magnificent staircase that leads to the second floor dominates the Grand Hall. There are three rooms on the first floor: the Throne Room, the State Dining Room, and the Blue Room.

The largest room on the first floor is the Throne Room; its predominant colors are maroon and gold. In King Kalakaua’s day this ornate room, with its brilliant chandeliers and dazzling mirrors, was used to receive distinguished visitors. It was also the scene of magnificent dress balls, where guests danced until the wee hours to music provided by the Royal Hawaiian Band, which was stationed on the veranda immediately outside the Throne Room. Refreshments were served in the State Dining Room.

When the State Dining Room was used for official functions, as it often was, as many as forty guests could be seated at its long tables. Place settings included gold-rimmed Limoges china from France decorated with the Hawaiian coat of arms, crystal from Bohemia, and sterling silver from England, France, China, and the United States. Guests enjoyed elaborate meals that often included Hawaiian, European, and American dishes. The dining room was connected to the kitchen by two dumbwaiters.

The Blue Room, which, as its name indicates, is decorated predominantly in blue, is located immediately to the left of the main entrance to the palace. It was used for small receptions and informal gatherings.

The second floor of the palace held the private living quarters of the royal family. These consisted of three large rooms on each side of a large central hall. King Kalakaua’s interconnected suite of rooms included a bedroom with a dressing room and bathroom, a library that served as his office, and a music room, sometimes called the Gold Room, where the family entertained informally. The suite of the king’s consort, Queen Kapiolani, included her bedroom, with a dressing room and bathroom, and two guest bedrooms. Two sitting rooms were nestled under the front and rear corner towers of the palace on the queen’s side of the hallway. The hallway itself served as a kind of sitting room. Here the royal family ate breakfast and entertained their intimate friends.

The Palace Grounds

Iolani Palace sits on a large, green, tree-shaded tract of land in what is now downtown Honolulu. It is surrounded by a stone wall topped by a decorative iron fence. There are four gates, each with its own name; during the monarchy era, each had a distinctive use. Several structures can be found on the palace grounds, including the Coronation Pavilion, which King Kalakaua built in 1883 to celebrate his long-postponed coronation. The octagonal pavilion, which is used today as a bandstand by the Royal Hawaiian Band, is also used for the inauguration of the governors of the state of Hawaii. Another structure, Iolani Barracks, was built in 1871 to house the Royal Guard. In 1965 this building was moved, stone by stone, from a nearby site and reassembled. It now serves as the palace shop and ticket office. A fenced-in mound of grass on the palace grounds marks the site of the former Royal Tomb. Although the remains of Hawaiian royalty were moved in 1865 to a new site, the Royal Mausoleum, some accounts state that the bones of certain chiefs remain on the site. King Kalakaua raised a mound over this spot and had it planted with ferns and flowers. A fence and marker were erected in 1930.

Iolani Palace and Queen Liliuokalani

When King Kalakaua died in 1891, his body lay in state in the Throne Room for two weeks. He was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, who used the palace as her royal residence until she was forced to abdicate in 1893 under threat of force by American troops. The queen then moved back to her own residence, Washington Place, now the home of Hawaii’s governors. The palace was renamed the Executive Building and became the seat of the provisional government.

In 1895 a group of supporters loyal to the queen initiated a revolt. Officials of what was then the Republic of Hawaii arrested the rebels and accused the queen of fomenting the rebellion. The queen was tried in her former Throne Room and found guilty. Sentenced to five years in prison, she was held in one of the former guest bedrooms on the second floor of the palace for eight months. After she was pardoned, the queen traveled to the United States to plead the cause of the Hawaiian kingdom, but to no avail. On August 12, 1898, Hawaii was officially annexed to the United States. The Hawaiian flag was lowered from the central flagpole atop the palace and the American flag was raised in its place. Two years later Hawaii officially became an American territory when President William McKinley signed the Organic Act.

Iolani Palace, 1900-1969

After the overthrow of the monarchy, most of the palace’s furnishings were dispersed. Some remained in the royal family, some were moved to Washington Place, but most were sold at auction. The royal thrones were placed at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

The building underwent a metamorphosis. The State Dining Room became the chamber for the Territorial Senate. The Territorial House of Representatives occupied the Throne Room. King Kalakaua’s bedroom and library served as the executive chamber for territorial governors. Later, after statehood in 1959, the legislative and executive branches of the Hawaii state government continued to occupy the building.

The name “Iolani Palace” was restored in 1935, and the Throne Room was restored in 1938. A full-scale restoration of the palace began in 1969, when a new state capitol building was ready for occupancy. Then the dream of restoring Iolani Palace to its former glory became a reality. Under the leadership of the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, led by descendants of Hawaiian royalty, the palace was restored, inch by painstaking inch. Temporary additions to the exterior of the building and partitions that had been added to the interior were removed. Termite damage was repaired. Furnishings were recovered from all over the world. Carpets, draperies, and fabrics were re-created. Today Iolani Palace is open for guided tours. It offers the visitor an authentic glimpse of Hawaii’s royal heritage.

Iolani Palace was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

For Further Information
  • Allen, Gwenfread. Hawaii’s Iolani Palace and Its Kings and Queens. Honolulu: Aloha Graphics and Sales, 1978. Recounts the history of the current palace as well as those that preceded it. Includes information about the royal personages who lived in the palace and the many historic ceremonies and events that took place there.
  • Du Pont, Keoni. A Walking Tour of ‘Iolani Palace Grounds: A Guide for Teachers. Honolulu: Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, 1995. Includes historical information on sites and buildings on the palace grounds. Although the tour is designed for secondary students, this source contains excellent historical information for adult readers.
  • Hackler, Rhoda E. A. ‘Iolani Palace: Hawai‘i’s Royal Palace, Official Residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani, the Last Monarchs of Hawai‘i, 1882-1893. Rev. ed. Honolulu: Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, 1993. Detailed history of the palace with information about it many rooms and historic furnishings, as well as its grounds. Illustrated with excellent color photographs. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Iolani Palace Restoration Project Staff. Iolani Palace Restoration. Honolulu: Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, 1970. Describes tasks accomplished and outlines further work needed for restoration of palace as of 1970. Includes archival photos, photos of interior and exterior aspects of the palace in the late 1960’s, floor plans, and architectural drawings.
  • Old Honolulu: A Guide to Oahu’s Historic Buildings. Honolulu: Mayor’s Historic Buildings Task Force, 1969. Contains brief descriptions of historic buildings on the island of Oahu, including Iolani Palace and other nearby structures such as Washington Place. Includes maps and photographs.
  • Peek, Jeannette Murray. Stepping into Time: A Guide to Honolulu’s Historic Landmarks. Honolulu: Mutual, 1994. Includes information about the palace, the Coronation Pavilion, and Iolani Barracks. Illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by the author.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. Teaneck, N.J.: Chadwyck Healey, 1982. Includes Inventory and Nomination Forms and photographs of historic properties, arranged by state, county, and vicinity. Hawaii entry includes extensive information about the palace and other structures on the grounds.
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