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Vol. 17, no. 3
June/July 2014


The Historian, the Conservator, the Attorney and his Desk 

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.