Story by A. Kam Napier
Photos by Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams
David Louie’s desk is covered with stacks of paper, all part
of the Hawai‘i state attorney general’s daily work. Of course there are many
desks in the AG’s offices in the elegant 1939 Mission Revival building on Queen
Street, but Louie’s stands out. Its wood glows with an orange fire. Its
precisely turned legs and finials mark it as coming from another era. The rectangular
boxes that are its twin drawers have been artfully trimmed with a darker wood.
It looks at once antique and brand new. Louie, himself a woodworker who turns
koa bowls, knew the desk was special when he moved into the office in 2011. At that
time the desk was covered with a dark finish, but its unusual size and design
struck him. And then he discovered what it was made of.
“One of my predecessors had chipped away at that finish, so
you could see that it was koa,” Louie recalls. Koa is Hawai‘i’s most prized
wood. It’s sturdy (about as hard as walnut or teak), exceptionally beautiful and
very expensive. If you wanted to buy a new koa desk like Louie’s today, it could
set you back $13,500.
Many local families proudly display koa bowls or furniture
in their homes, but it’s unusual for such heirlooms to show up in government
offices. Intrigued by the desk, Louie called up some of the former AGs who’d
sat at the same one. He got his best lead from Michael Lilly, who first sat at
the desk as deputy attorney general from 1981 to 1985 and who liked it so much that
he took it with him to the AG’s office when he assumed that position. Lilly
didn’t know much about the desk itself, but he did know someone who might:
furniture historian Irving Jenkins.
Louie called Jenkins, who examined the desk and told Louie
that not merely was it an heirloom piece, it was also a piece of history: one
of thirteen such koa desks known to exist, most of them dating to the time of
the Hawaiian monarchy. Others were in such historic places as Bishop Museum and
‘Iolani Palace; in government buildings like Ali‘iolani Hale; and at Washington
Place. A couple of desks had made their way to Hawai‘i Island. They were at
Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona and McCandless Ranch in Captain Cook. Furthermore,
Jenkins told Louie, the AG’s desk did not merely share an esteemed pedigree
with its dozen cousins: More than likely Louie’s desk was the first one made —the
exemplar after which the rest had been fashioned.