Issue 14.5: 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.”


Ahead of its time: King David Kalakaua furnished his study when he moved into 'Iolani Palace in 1883. Today, a portrait of the king hangs in the room.
Had you walked
into the palace’s music room a year ago, the only gold you would have seen would have been shafts of sunshine moving across the barren floor. The space was largely devoid of furnishings and artwork. Decades earlier the whole palace was in a state of disrepair.


The sad transformation that had taken place—from spectacular palace to abandoned government building—began in 1893, when foreign and commercial interests backed by the American ambassador overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom. By this time Kalakaua had died; he succumbed to illness in San Francisco in 1891 at the age of 54. In the wake of his death, the throne had passed to his sister Lili‘uokalani. After the overthrow, Lili‘uokalani was held captive in one of the rooms on the palace’s second floor; her trial was held in the throne room.


The palace began to be disassembled. The monarchs were allowed to keep personal belongings, but all other items in the palace—things like beds, chairs, carpets, china—were claimed as government property and sold at auction. Some of the most valuable and culturally significant items—like thrones and feather cloaks— went to Bishop Museum. The building itself became the executive building of the new government: first the republic, then the territory, then the state. Finally, in 1969, the State Capitol was completed. Government officials moved out of ‘Iolani Palace, leaving it empty and worn.


Groups like the Junior League of Honolulu and the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace began the restoration. They worked on the building itself, buttressing its structural integrity. Once that was complete, ‘Iolani Palace was opened as a museum in 1978. But museumgoers entered an empty building: While the plaster and flooring had been redone, all of the rooms were vacant. And so began the next step, to bring the palace’s rooms back to their Kalakaua-era finery. During the 1980s several of the rooms were re-created to look just as they did during the monarchy: The throne room and dining room, as well as the king’s library upstairs, were again filled with furniture and artifacts. The Blue Room on the first floor followed, as well as the “imprisonment room” where the queen was held captive after she was removed from the throne. By the time these areas were completed, millions had been spent on the restoration, raised from donations and government grants; once that was gone the restoration went “on hiatus” until more funding could be found for the remaining spaces: the king’s bedroom, the queen’s bedroom, the grand hall, the upper hall … and the music room.


The blue room is on the palace's first floor. The large painting of Queen Lili'uokalani in the room was done by William Cogswell in 1891; in it, the queen wears the star, cross and sash of the Knights of Grand Cross of the Order of Kalakaua.
From the beginning
the quest to restore the palace has involved the search for treasured artifacts, a search that continues to this day. The acquisitions of even the smallest artifacts—a pair of cufflinks, a single fork—are seen as huge victories by those working to restore the palace to its nineteenth-century grandeur.


A group of women who eventually became known as the Thursday Ladies—nicknamed for the day they did the bulk of their work at the palace—led the effort. One of the few Thursday Ladies still alive and in Hawai‘i is Pattie Black, 86, who began volunteering at ‘Iolani Palace more than twenty years ago. As one of the Thursday Ladies, she found herself part of a detective team of sorts. She pored over newspaper articles and the palace’s official register of artifacts. Then she and other volunteers would match descriptions with artifacts they had heard about or found.


“Sometimes it was very disappointing, but then every once in a while you really hit it,” says Black. “We found a pair of cufflinks with a lady’s face. The palace inventory was enough to show me … that they were what we were looking for. The woman who donated [them] said her father had gotten them at an auction.”


The cufflinks had been sold for $2 at a 1924 auction held in the ballroom of the since-demolished Alexander Young Hotel in downtown Honolulu. The auction was held by the executors of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s estate, at her request, to raise money for the welfare of orphaned children; it included a slew of the queen’s personal belongings, like tiger claw jewelry and diamond brooches. Another item sold at that auction was a diamond butterfly brooch with ruby eyes and a hidden spring that made its wings flutter; Lili‘uokalani had purchased it when she was still a princess, on a trip to London in 1887. It sold at the auction for $1,375. Decades later an Oregonian woman who had inherited it from her mother returned it to the palace.


There are numerous other tales of returns: Ten years ago a group of Iowa eighth-graders successfully convinced their governor to return a table in the Hawkeye governor’s mansion that once belonged to Kalakaua. A California woman visiting ‘Iolani Palace realized that the wedding present she had received forty years earlier was in fact a royal soup bowl from the palace. She returned it, noting that the bowl had survived two major earthquakes. A couple that unwittingly bought a royal plate for seventy-five cents at a California swap meet later saw a television program about ‘Iolani Palace and recognized the royal insignia that was stamped on their plate. They hand-delivered it in 2007. A palace chair that had been sold at auction in 1900 survived the 1946 tsunami on Maui; it was carried away by the waves and later found unscathed, only to be spotted by palace staffers years later, sitting in an open garage. The staffers had taken a wrong turn to inspect another possible artifact, a sofa. It was a banner day: They ended up returning to the palace with both.


Restorer Bob Arkus works on the circular sofa that today is in the music room. It was found in Australia, shipped to the Islands and restored in Arkus' Kalihi garage. "The reason I like restorations," he says, "is there's only one way to make it, and that's factory correct, no deviation."
To those who understand
the complexity of Hawai‘i’s history, ‘Iolani Palace has always represented sovereignty. In 1993, thousands gathered at the palace to mourn the centennial of the overthrow, and the building was draped in black. “For me, as a Native Hawaiian, when you go in there and you know the story of what took place, you feel it, you can sense it,” Souza says. “But you don’t have to be Native Hawaiian to appreciate its mana. It’s a place that we have great reverence for, the pain and sorrow but also the joy that took place there.”


The second great phase of ‘Iolani’s period room restorations is now underway, begun in 2003 when Stuart Ching was hired as curator, and the music room is the first room to be restored in this century. For the first time since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, the Gold Room looks much as it did when the royals played and sang in it. And the tale of how it came back to life is a story that spans thousands of miles and countless hours.


Take, for example, the ornate circular sofa that now sits in the room. Earlier this year it was in a fluorescent-lit garage down a narrow street in Kalihi—beneath a dropcloth and easy to overlook between an electric blue motorcycle and a trash can. But there it was: an elegant confection on its way to being reupholstered in a warm yellow hue. The sofa had come from Australia, a nineteenth-century piece with its original padding intact, tracked down by researchers who believe a sofa just like it once sat in the music room. They had little to go on: With no known monarchyera photographs of the music room, they had been forced to piece together a vision of the room by using a series of small nonvisual clues. For the sofa those included a 130-year-old receipt that listed furniture purchased for the palace in 1881. The bill of sale showed furniture Kalakaua ordered from Boston-based A.H. Davenport Company, a company that also furnished the White House. Among the items on Kalakaua’s list: a circular sofa for $176.


Once found in Australia, the sofa was sent to the Kalihi garage of Bob Arkus, an expert restorer hired to reupholster it. When Arkus began, the sofa was emerald green. He smoothed buttery yellow fabric over it, then diamond-tufted the back, dimpling it with buttons that he covered with the same sunny fabric. Later he added braided trim and a gathered band.


Arkus is tall and slim and has an easygoing manner that can’t quite hide the intensity of a perfectionist. He spent much of his boyhood in his father’s furniture shop in California, where he eventually learned the family trade, one he says is quickly dying out. He moved to the Islands in 1976 to work on cars, and he still does work on cars, which explains the frosted teal 1970 Cadillac parked a couple of feet from the sofa.


Arkus has done a number of historic restorations locally, including refurbishing one of Kalakaua’s chairs and redoing the original pews at Kawaiaha‘o Church, the Honolulu edifice that dubs itself “the Westminster Abbey of Hawai‘i.” He describes working on a project for the palace as the “fulfillment of a dream” that he first had upon strolling through the Bishop Museum and seeing royal artifacts nearly four decades ago.


In the monarchs' time, the State Dining Room hosted grand affairs over which the king and queen presided. During state dinners the Royal Hawaiian Band set up on the veranda just outside and played waltzes, polkas and excerpts from operas.
Deborah Kraak, too,
calls her work for the palace “the job of a lifetime.” The Delaware-based textile expert, who grew up in Hawai‘i, was one of the researchers deeply involved in the music room’s recreation. “It’s really amazing to gather bits of information from here and there, and a lot of it is just on paper,” she says.


Indeed, the researchers are playing the same game as the Thursday Ladies. Much of what they know about the room has been pieced together from slivers of information in disjointed archives: that bill of sale from A.H. Davenport, a passing reference from a nineteenth-century palace visitor’s writings, chamberlain’s records describing slipcovers to be laundered.


“I have pictures of King Kalakaua, [his wife] Queen Kapi‘olani and Queen Lili‘uokalani on my desk as I work,” Kraak says. “Everyone wants to get it accurate to honor them and to bring back the palace to what it was. … The challenge for the music room is there were no photographs taken in 1886. We just have a provisional government-era photograph.”


That photograph, dated around 1900, shows six men sitting around a cluttered table in what was once the music room. In the middle of the photograph sits a gravefaced Sanford Dole, one of the men who led the charge to strip Lili‘uokalani of the throne seven years earlier. But it’s what’s behind Dole that Kraak finds of value: long curtains hanging in dark folds from broad curtain rods. Despite their gloomy appearance in the photograph, Kraak and other researchers believe the curtains were actually a rich golden color, like the fabric Arkus is using for the circular sofa.


“What we had to remember was that when the room was photographed in the late nineteenth century, the film that was being used was called orthochromatic film,” Kraak says. “So what you see is not what you would see in a contemporary black-and-white photo. Red photographs almost black, yellow photographs as almost black, light blue goes almost white. So when you see those curtains are very, very dark, you think, ‘They couldn’t possibly be yellow because they’re so dark.’ But they are.”


The other critical piece of evidence to suggest the drapes were gold is an original cord that was used to tie them: Its twisted threads intertwine amber- and olive-colored silk. “The only textile that survived from the music room was the gold tie-back for the curtains,” Kraak says, “and that’s really important because from it we can tell what the colors were.”


Kraak has also been involved in extensive research into upholstery that would have been in the room. Almost all of her work was done some five thousand miles from the palace— close to where the furnishings were created but with a distinct set of challenges. For example, the way sunlight shines into the palace cannot be replicated in her home state of Delaware. “The Hawaiian light has been very important,” Kraak says, “and my light is not Hawaiian.”


Textile expert Celia Oliver works on drapes for the music room. Oliver created the drapes in the palace itself, far from her home in Vermont. "People would come in and get teary-eyed about seeing it restored," she says of the music room. She calls her work on the palace "really quite magical."
That Hawaiian climate
is part of the reason that Celia Oliver, the textile expert who sewed the music room drapes, opted to do her work in ‘Iolani Palace itself. Oliver lives in Vermont, and she has long known Kraak through the field of restoration; it was through their acquaintance that she became involved with the ‘Iolani Palace project. She knew almost immediately she would have to travel to Honolulu and work in the city.


“I was really concerned about the drapes acclimatizing from Vermont to the tropics,” she says. So palace staffers offered her an on-site workspace on the second floor, where she spent seven weeks in 2010 sewing enormous gold drapes in front of countless passing visitors; she was assisted in the sewing by volunteers from the Hawaii Quilt Guild. The fabric for the drapes, old gold worsted satin, had been specially crafted for the palace by the Scalamandré Company in Europe, at a cost of over $100 a yard. Oliver, who made similarly extravagant drapes for the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, DC, says the work for ‘Iolani Palace has been unlike any other historic project she has undertaken.


“People would come in and get tearyeyed about seeing it restored,” Oliver says. “It’s such a very different feeling than our White House or a capitol building in one of our states. It’s just very … well, magical. Really quite magical.”


The work of restoration continues: The next rooms in the palace slated to be redone are the king’s and queen’s bedrooms. The sleuthing, too, continues: Countless original furnishings are still missing, including Kalakaua’s bed, a Venus de Milo plaster cast that once stood in his library and a gothic revival hutch last seen in the Haleiwa Hotel, which was demolished in 1952. “There’s always a chance you can find something else, something more,” says Thursday Lady Pattie Black. “When you do it’s a thrill.”


“The palace belongs to the crown but also the people of Hawai‘i,” says Souza. “Not just Native Hawaiians, but all those who are here should take claim to it. It’s a national treasure.”