Q and A

Experts at the Palace
Image: szhpphotoweb.net

Palace intrigue

Lecture series opens in ruin


Tue, Jan 14

Experts at the Palace / This week marks the launch of the Experts at the Palace lecture series at ‘Iolani Palace. Presented by the University of Hawaii’s Historic Preservation Program, this year’s series focuses on the Hawaiian monarchy and the kingdom. The first event, set for Thursday at noon, features a talk by Spencer Leineweber, a historical architect and graduate chair of the UH-Manoa architecture program. Leineweber’s presentation is titled, “Rituals of Place: Palaces of the Kamehameha Monarchy,” and she gave the Weekly a preview of her talk earlier this week.

What does a historical architect do, exactly?

We work on historical preservation and conservation projects, and then also on new buildings in historical preservation areas. I haven’t worked on new buildings there, but Chinatown, for example, is a historic preservation area. It has a lot to do with building contextually. I’ve personally done a lot of work on houses in historic areas like Manoa and Kahala.

You’ll be talking this week about the palaces of the Kamehameha dynasty. For those of us who aren’t sure, what are they?

I’m going to focus on the palaces of Kauikeaouli, who was [later known as] Kamehameha III. There are three of them: the first is Halekauwila, the second Kaniakapupu, which was his summer palace, and then the first ‘Iolani palace, which was there before the one we know today, though many people don’t know about it.

I hadn’t.

Kalakaua, of course, built the one we have now. The first ‘Iolani Palace was built–actually it was taken over by Kamehameha III, it was originally built for Princess Victoria [Kaiulani]. So I will be talking about that, and then I’m going to talk about the hale pili or grass houses as well.

Where is Kaniakapupu?

I’ve been working at the Kaniakapupu site with a hui malama, a group that’s been caring for the place, and I think that’s what got me interested in these palaces generally.

It’s a ruin in the back of the Nuuanu watershed. It’s quite a complex site–it was in ruins by the 1870s, really, because it could not be repaired for a variety of reasons. But it’s a very complex site and very meaningful to native Hawaiians today. It’s where the return of the monarchy to Kamehameha III by Admiral Thomas [after the Paulet Affair, during which sovereignty over the Islands was temporarily ceded to Great Britain] was celebrated. It’s one of the most important sites in all of Hawaii.

Historically, going forward, or both?


It seems like such a remote site.

Well, it wasn’t. It was a very important site for the monarchy. It’s where Kamehameha gathered his troops for the Battle of Nuuanu. There’s always been a house in that area, since Kamehameha first came to Oahu. It’s quite cool there, and of course back then it had no forest around it, so you could see the sea. It’s also the site of a heiau.

Was the idea of a palace imported, or do these things arise organically?

I think the idea of reception, that side of palaces, the way a palace negotiates formal social relationships, is something that happened in Hawaii as part of the transformation of early Hawaii and the monarchy’s relationship to foreigners. I’ll talk about this on Thursday.

Palaces seem intended for domestic political consumption in many cases. Was that true in Hawaii, or were these built in part to impress foreigners?

The second ‘Iolani palace had that clear objective. The use of the first ‘Iolani palace, which was built a little bit earlier, was for the hierarchy of reception, social hierarchies.

What was the first ‘Iolani Palace like?

It was a wood-framed building on the same site as the current palace. It had sort of a central hall with two spaces on either side, which is Western-influenced, but it maintained strong cultural values in terms of organization of space. Its orientation to the south and southwest, for example, maintains the connection to Hawaiiki [the ancestral homeland in many Polynesian traditions]. All of the palaces have that orientation, and to have four openings on the cardinal points is also a an important cultural value.

Is there evidence that any of these palaces affected residential or commercial architecture at that time?

Kaniakapupu is a masonry building of cut lava and cut coral, and then it was plastered in lime. That idea of plastering and making a white building in the landscape was used again and again afterward. There was a focus on that kind of construction. It also has a large hale pili, which is probably three times the size of the masonry building.

The Experts at the Palace lecture series runs Thursdays, 1/14–2/18, at Noon. Admission is free. See [www.hawaii.edu] for a complete schedule.