Victoria would have loved Hawaii's royal palace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One interesting place not to miss if you're visiting the island of Oahu is the Iolani Palace. It is the only royal palace on United States soil, as people here are fond of saying, a grand example of Victorian-tropical architecture. Its broad, Corinthian-columned fa,cade looks immensely solid, almost indestructible.

And yet the world it was designed to showcase -- a kingly life style along the lines of European royalty -- didn't last long. Thirteen years after the palace was built, the last queen of Hawaii was tried for treason here, in her own throne room.

Afterward, the palace became the capitol building for the new republic of Hawaii. The furnishings were auctioned; the huge carpet in the throne room was sold piece by piece; and termites attacked the great central koa wood staircase. Revolutions, even relatively peaceable ones, are unkind to kingly trappings.

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But since 1969, when work began to restore the palace to its original state, millions of dollars have been spent, and today you can take a tour and imagine Iolani Palace in its brief but glorious heyday.

One of the guides -- a group of gray-haired and fiercely protective haole ladies in Mother Hubbard dresses -- will give you a pair of stretchy booties to put over your shoes. She'll then lead you through a door into the royal front hall.

You understand the booties after you enter. The hall, running from the front to the back of the building, has such an amazingly shiny floor that you can actually see a dim reflection of your face in it. The front door has Hawaiian motifs etched in glass and the center of the hall is dominated by a new and gleaming koa wood staircase.

Most interesting are the stately portraits of nine Hawaiian kings and queens that line the walls. But there's not much time to study them. Our guide is going over palace protocol, and has us, in imagination, dressed in silk and jewels, stepping from a carriage aided by a footman, and then sweeping through those etched glass doors into the Blue Room to wait for an audience with King Kalakaua.

The Iolani Palace was occupied by two rulers: King Kalakaua, a handsome man with Prince Albert side whiskers, who built the palace and gave himself a splendid coronation here, somewhat after the fact; and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani.

There aren't many rooms in the entire building. Downstairs, there are only four. Behind the Blue Room is the dining room, whose table is set with crystal and silver, as for a banquet. Our guide showed us an elaborate breakfast menu -- pigeons on toast, and ice cream among the many offerings -- and explained that the Royal Hawaiian Band would have played out on the lanai as everyone ate.

Upstairs are four large, well-proportioned rooms full of sunshine. Here are found the king's bedroom and the queen's, the king's study, lined with books, and a music room.

Curators had to go on a ``treasure hunt'' to find the pieces now in the palace. A visitor from Oklahoma City, looking at the photo of King Kalakaua's bedroom, recognized a small table in it as one in his own possession. A sharp-eyed palace curator spied a royal chair, encrusted with thick yellow enamel paint, in a thrift shop. One big wardrobelike piece was spotted in the local prison.

Next, our guide took us to a small room, a former guest room, where Queen Liliuokalani had been imprisoned. We heard the sad story of how the queen's government was overthrown in a brief and bloodless coup. While the queen waited for a reply to her appeal to the US government to restore her rights, some of her supporters staged a counterrevolution, after which ammunition was found buried in the queen's own garden. The queen's trial was held downstairs, in the throne room, where she was found guilty of treason and sentenced to a $5,000 fine and five years of hard labor. The sentence was never carried out, but the queen did spend eight months imprisoned in the little second-floor room.

Our last stop was back down on the first floor in the throne room, handsome with its beautiful new rug - red with a sweeping design of ferns - a replica of the original. On either side of the two golden thrones at the far end were kahili, gorgeous feather-dusterlike objects that were symbols of Hawaiian royalty before European-style palaces and coronations were ever thought of. Kahili warned the common people of a ruler's approach. Subjects were required to obey a strict code of behavior in the presence of royalty, with infringements punishable by death.

Generally, it seems that Victorian decoration won out over the Hawaiian in the palace. One feels that if Queen Victoria herself had owned an Hawaiian palace, it might have looked something like this. In fact, King Kalakaua had wanted to name his new home St. Alexander's Palace. But his advisers prevailed with the name Iolani, meaning ``bird of heaven,'' the most sacred name in the Hawaiian language.

Old pictures of the palace, however, show attendants wearing feather capes and carrying huge kahili, indicating that in its day the place might have had a more Hawaiian look.

The kings of Hawaii are not forgotten. The Royal Hawaiian Band still plays outdoors on Fridays at 12:15, weather permitting; you can bring a bag lunch and sit on the lawn to listen. And a grand celebration still marks every royal birthday. Practical information

You need a reservation to visit the palace. Call (808) 536-6185, or write Friends of Iolani Palace, Reservations, Box 2259, Honolulu, HI 96804. Cost is $4 for adults, $1 for children. Children under 5 are not admitted. The palace, located in Honolulu on Kings Street behind the state capitol, is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.

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