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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


The Restoration 

Story by Adrienne LaFrance

Photos by Dana Edmunds


The music room at 'Iolani Palace (seen here) has been painstakingly reconstructed to look just as it did when Hawai'i was a sovereign nation and the monarchs gathered in the room to kani ka pila (make music). The sumptuous space was just completed this year; researchers spent thousands of hours working to make sure that every detail was correct, often with little to go on.
Walk into the music room
on the second floor of ‘Iolani Palace, and you will understand why people call it the Gold Room. Polished wooden doors glow in the sunlight. Half a dozen gilt-framed watercolors line the walls. An ornate circular sofa matches luxurious, buttery drapes. A koa wood table stands with a pair of elephant tusks jutting out from its surface. It was a gift to King David Kalakaua in 1886, for the occasion of his 50th birthday.


Kalakaua, who ascended to the throne in 1874, was an explorer, a man of creativity and savoir faire. He was a world traveler and an entertainer whose enthusiasm for festive celebrations earned him the nickname the “Merrie Monarch.” It was Kalakaua who came up with the idea to create the present-day ‘Iolani Palace for Hawai‘i’s monarchy, and it was under his guidance that the palace was built, from 1879 to 1882, for a cost of $300,000.


When the palace doors opened, they led into what was then one of the most innovative buildings in the world. Kalakaua dazzled his visitors with just-invented electricity at a time when the White House was still being lit by candles. He had a working telephone and a toilet that flushed, modern luxuries that were unheard of in those days. His second-floor library was filled with books and curiosities collected around the globe. Even the architectural style of the palace was unique. Dubbed “American Florentine,” it combined elements of Victorian, French Empire, Greek and Roman architecture—all adapted for the Hawaiian climate.


In the king’s day, the grounds of the palace were often festooned with lanterns. Guests at his galas danced in the expansive throne room and, in the dining room, ate from Parisian fine china embellished with the Hawaiian coat of arms and drank from colorful Bohemian crystal. In the adjoining Blue Room, visitors mingled in a high-ceilinged parlor ornately decorated in shades of lapis lazuli.


Kalakaua’s parties were known to extend well past midnight, and perhaps it was then that the musical instruments came out. Researchers say it’s possible that the royals picked a lucky few guests, then played and sang for them in the upstairs music room. From there the royals and their guests could have walked onto the wide lanai that wraps around the palace. On a clear night they would have seen moonlight on the ocean and the masts of ships on the horizon. On the palace grounds palm trees stood rigid and regal, like the bright-feathered kahili beside the king’s throne.


“I love the color in there. It’s amazing,” says Bill Souza, protocol officer for the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. “It has always been a long-range policy to try to restore the palace to the King Kalakaua era. It’s been planned for years, but to finally see it happening … Those of us who support the palace have been looking forward to this for so long.”