Issue 6.1: February/March 2003

House of Stories


by Sally-Jo Keala-o-Anuenue Bowman


Across from the Hawaii State Capitol in downtown Honolulu, past the shimmering blue haze of Beretania Street’s six lanes of traffic, a white mansion stands in a shady oasis behind a wrought-iron fence. Many know Washington Place as the governor’s residence; some remember that Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, once lived in it. And now that it will be open to the public as a historic interpretive center, visitors can immerse themselves in the tales that make Washington Place, above all, a house of stories.

One such story comes from a transition time, 1917. At seventy-eight, Queen Liliuokalani was near life’s end, nearly twenty-five years after her Kingdom of Hawaii government was overthrown in a coup d’état led by foreign businessmen. The aging queen rested often on her big four-poster bed jammed against the French window in the downstairs bedroom—a perfect spot to play peek-a-boo with a little neighbor girl who frequently sneaked into the yard. Their giggles brought the queen’s nurses and ladies-in-waiting running. When the queen heard them coming, she would motion to her young accomplice to hide beneath the window sill. When the attendants departed, the little girl popped up again.

Queen Liliuokalani in her bedroom at Washington Place

Today, you can picture the scene as you visit that very room: Last fall, the queen’s bedroom was opened to the public after extensive renovation. Guided tours of the main floor are now being offered, and work is scheduled to begin soon on new galleries in the upstairs area that for the last eighty-three years served as the living quarters of Hawai‘i’s state and territorial governors. But no more: When the state’s new governor. Linda Lingle, took office in December, she moved into a new house at the back of the property, freeing the second-floor living quarters for conversion into public galleries to share the stories of Washington Place.

The story of the house itself began in 1837, when Beretania Street was a dusty path through a parched, treeless plain sprinkled with a few chiefs’ residences and the churches and houses of the growing haole population. Enter a mysterious sea captain from New England, John Dominis.


The Queen's restored bedroom

"Dominis had arrived in New England in 1819, a polished, aristocratic gentleman who spoke perfect English, but no one knew where he came from," says Jim Bartels, who oversaw the renovation of the home as Washington Place director under former Governor Ben Cayetano. "Even his son never knew where he came from, and if his wife knew, she never told."

Dominis married the belle of a prominent Boston family, Mary Lambert Jones. The captain first appeared in Honolulu as early as 1823, and in 1837 he moved to Honolulu permanently with his wife and young son, John Owen. According to Bartels, Mary Dominis took one look at Honolulu and demanded 1) a mansion and 2) trees. In 1847, she got both at Washington Place.

In the interim, Capt. Dominis sailed the seas in command of merchant ships. In 1842, he filed with the U.S. Patent Office for a patent on a complicated instrument to measure canvas for sails, signing the application "John Dominis of the Sandwich Islands."

In 1846, he set sail for China, intending to return with elegant furniture for the new house, but was never heard from again, presumably lost at sea. The enigmatic captain never lived in the mansion he spent five years building, but Mary and young John moved in, taking in boarders to make ends meet.

A decade later, Mary Dominis was among the first in Honolulu to have a Christmas tree. At her holiday party, Santa Claus bestowed a gift on each of about a hundred children—much to the disapproval of the strict missionaries who had grown increasingly influential in Island life. "They believed, correctly, that Christmas was based on a pagan ceremony," Bartels says. "You know, the winter solstice and all that. They considered it right up there with idolatry, and singing and dancing for pleasure. And they disliked the idea of giving children gifts for which they had not worked and sacrificed. They thought it taught bad habits and worked against the all-important idea of thrift." In this light, Bartels says, "Mrs. Dominis’ Christmas parties were a brave political and social gesture in those early years."

In 1862, Mary’s son John married Lydia Kamakaeha Paki—the future Queen Liliuokalani—in a small ceremony at the home of her hanai (adopted) sister, Princess Bernice Pauahi, who was also married to a prominent American, Charles Reed Bishop. "By most accounts, John’s mother waited at home," Bartels says. When Lydia moved into her mother-in-law’s mansion, she wrote decades later, she was considered an "intruder," a fact she was "forced to realize from the beginning."

At the time, Lydia Paki was just one of a number of high chiefs, far less prominent than her husband, who had become Governor of Oahu in 1864. In 1877, the tables turned when her brother, King Kalakaua, named her heir apparent. To her dislike, he also gussied up her name. "Her Hawaiian name meant ‘Sore Eyes,’" Bartels says. "Like many Hawaiian names, it marked an important situation when she was born—a relative suffered a painful eye problem. King Kalakaua didn’t want her to become Queen Sore Eyes The First, so he tinkered with the name, until it meant ‘The Smarting of the Royal One,’ which was actually the same thing."

When Kalakaua died in January 1891, Liliuokalani inherited a host of political troubles along with the throne. Two years later, a small group of resident American and other foreign businessmen engineered her overthrow and created a Provisional Government, which they converted into the Republic of Hawaii in 1894.

After a failed counter-revolution in 1895, Republic officials came knocking on the Washington Place door with a warrant for the queen’s arrest. She wrote later that her private papers were "swept into a bag and carried off by the chief justice in person," and then militiamen ransacked Washington Place "from garret to trifle left unturned....Every drawer of desk, table, or bureau was wrenched out, turned upside down, the contents pulled over on the floors..."

"During the first days of her imprisonment, officials led her to believe she might be shot," Bartels says. They forced her to abdicate the throne, signing the document as "Liliuokalani Dominis," which had never been her legal name. They tried her before a military court, convicted her of "misprision of treason" (knowing about treason but not reporting it), fined her $500, and sentenced her to five years in prison at hard labor.

The Queen on the lawn, early 1900s.

They actually imprisoned her in a second-floor bedroom of Iolani Palace, releasing her eight months later to Washington Place—on parole. When they lifted parole in December 1896, she went to Washington, D.C., to plead the Kingdom’s case. At that point, Bartels says, "She began to reinvent herself. She knew she was too significant to just vanish."

For a decade, she continued to labor for the reinstatement of the Kingdom. She held regular public audiences at Washington Place. Later, when automobiles came in, she bought two and hired a chauffeur. He drove her to Moanalua Field to witness the flight of the first airplane in Hawaii, a canvas-and-wood construction similar to the Wright Brothers’ machine. When Buddhist immigrants established a temple in Honolulu, some local Christians considered it akin to devil worship, but Liliuokalani, a staunch Christian herself, visited the new edifice. She also established the Liliuokalani Trust, which now provides social services to thousands of Hawaiian children. After the Queen’s death in 1917, Liliuokalani Trust sold Washington Place to the Territory of Hawai‘i with the stipulation that it be used as the governor’s residence and a memorial to the queen.

When Hawaii became the United States’ westernmost shore, it fell to Territorial governors to welcome Asian dignitaries on their way to Washington, D.C. A garden at the back of the house was sacrificed to add a state dining room, where food became the ingredient for new stories.

Once, in the 1930s, the food service staff deliberately planned a steak menu for a visiting Hindu potentate. When the guests sent their plates of sacred cow back to the kitchen, the staff scrambled eggs for the guests and ate the steak themselves. By the 1960s, however, the staff had presumably become more politically sensitive, and they invented the first porkless luau for Jordan’s Muslim King Hussein.

At another state dinner, U.S. Vice President Lyndon Johnson noticed that the serving staff had come up short on steaks. "Incredibly," says Bartels, "They had miscounted. Johnson saw the problem. With characteristic decisiveness, he just grabbed a steak, cut it in half, and plopped it on the plate next to his."

Gov. Bill Quinn

That was in the days of Bill Quinn, the last appointed Territorial governor, who was then elected the first state governor

in 1959. In 1960, Bill and Nancy Quinn hosted the young monarch of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his wife, Queen Sirikit, for four days. Of course, Quinn knew that the king was a devout Buddhist, but the governor, an amateur musician, also discovered that the king played the clarinet. Quinn chose the entertainers for the state dinner accordingly—hula master Iolani Luahine, followed by Kenny Alford and his Dixiecats. He told Alford to have a new silver clarinet mouthpiece in his pocket.

Following dinner, the party repaired to the patio. After the Dixiecats had played a couple of songs, Quinn said to the king, "Your Majesty, I understand you play a mean clarinet. I wonder if you would join the band?" Queen Sirikit suggested Quinn first sing a number, which he did. And then the king borrowed a clarinet and jammed with the Dixiecats. At the end of the hour, the fifty guests gave him a standing ovation.

When the royal couple left Hawaii, Quinn said later, "I had a tear in my eye, and he did, too." Afterward, the American ambassador to Thailand told Quinn, "You know, Governor, in Thailand they still approach the king on their knees, and there’s nobody that he has any closeness with except possibly a relative or two. You’re the best friend he’s ever had."

Bartels thinks the Quinns win the prize for having the most fun at Washington Place. But recent governor Ben Cayetano and his wife Vicky get credit for turning the grand old mansion into a more public place, while still housing Hawai‘i’s heads-of-state on the property. The new governor will still hold state functions at Washington Place, but mostly it will serve as a public museum.

Liliuokalani's portrait watches
over the dining room

The new living arrangements are a boon to history-minded visitors, and they should also offer a bit more privacy to Hawaii’s chief executive. Vicky Cayetano likes to tell the story of an impromptu encounter that happened several years ago during a public open house. She was standing at the front entrance greeting people and posing with them for pictures. Just as she was shaking hands with a woman and her young daughter, her husband—having forgotten about the occasion—barreled down the grand front staircase wearing a T-shirt, shorts and rubber slippers.

"Mommy, look!" the little girl said. "It’s the governor!"

As Cayetano retreated up the stairs, the mother said, "Oh, it couldn’t be the governor. He would never dress like that."

For information on public tours of Washington Place, call (808) 536-8040.