Hulihe’e Palace in Kailua is a beautifully restored historical site on the Big Island, the oldest of the three palaces of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. It represents the story of the Native Hawaiians’ introduction to western ideals of architecture, their rejection by some, and then enthusiastic adoption by royalty. This history can be traced through three key owners of the palace, the original builder, John Adams Kuakini; the Princess who inherited it, Ruth Ke‘elikōlani; and the King who bought it, David Kalākaua.
It also tells the deeper story of the rapid change in the lives of the Hawaiians, all in the space of a century. Imagine you are Kaluaikonahale (John Adams Kuakini). Your parents had been living at a time of no glass, clay or metal in Hawai‘i. Then in 1778, Captain Cook and other sea travelers turned your family’s world upside down, introducing iron, weapons and disease. Kuakini was born just ten years after Captain Cook got himself killed at Kealakekua Bay. The son of an ali’i who helped King Kamehameha come to power, he had three sisters, all of whom became wives of the king, and a brother who became Governor of Maui.
Over his lifetime Kuakini witnessed vast changes in the lives of his people. When King Kamehameha died in 1819, his favorite wife, Queen Ka‘ahumanu, and Kuakini’s sister, co-ruled with Kamehameha II who was only 22. She pushed to eliminate the kapu, the set of laws by which the Hawaiians had lived for the past 500 years, and achieved it with the simple act of dining with Kamehameha II. Soon after, the young king had all religious objects destroyed. The missionaries arrived at this vulnerable time, in 1820. The Hawaiians were ripe for a new set of principles to shape their lives, and Christianity filled the void left by the now defunct kapu.
As a measure of how fast life was changing, Kamehameha II died on a trip to England from exposure to measles in 1824. His brother became King Kamehameha III in 1825 at age 12, also co-ruling with Queen Ka‘ahumanu until her death in 1832.
During this time, the government of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i moved from Kailua to Lahaina on Maui, the center of the whaling industry. Queen Ka‘ahumanu appointed Kuakini to watch over the Big Island as Governor, and in 1831, Oahu Island as well, when she learned of a rebellion there.
By the late 1920s, the missionaries urged Hawaiians to take a western name. Kuakini chose John Adams after the 6th president of the US. In his official role, Kuakini provided land to the missionaries to build Moku‘aikaua Church, the oldest Christian church in the Hawaiian Islands.
In the midst of all this change, Kuakini began to build his home (later Hulihe‘e Palace) right on the waterfront, as befitted a man of his standing. From this site he could see across the bay to Kamakahonu, the bay where King Kamehameha I had lived. Today that site contains a two-thirds sized replica of the heiau (temple) of that compound.
Kuakini had absorbed new ideas brought by the westerners and chose to build a western-style home of local materials including lava stones, ōhi’a timbers and koa for paneling. His home was right across the street from the church, so when their wooden building burned down, he helped the missionaries build a more permanent structure.
Builders (locals and foreign seamen) constructed both buildings of lava stone, coral-lime mortar and ‘ōhi‘a and koa timbers. The walls of both were three feet thick at the base to keep the interior cooler. It is easier to envision what the outside of the home looked like back then, by observing the church in its current state. His home was completed in 1838 and the church in 1837.
With 12 foot ceilings in the three rooms downstairs (entry, Governor Kuakini’s office, and dining room) and 16 foot ceilings in the three rooms upstairs (sitting room and two bedrooms), the home towered above other hale (homes) in Kailua.
Windows and doors were positioned immediately across from each other to capture the shore breezes. The stone house was considered the finest home in all the Hawaiian Islands at that time. Kuakini was very proud of his home and enjoyed showing it to visitors coming to Kailua by boat. He died in 1844, and the house passed to his son who died a few years later of measles.
The son’s widow then inherited it in 1848. As the highest ranking ali‘i on the island, Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani became the Governor. She was the richest person in Hawai‘i, the primary heir of the whole Kamehameha family, and she owned 9% of all the land in the islands at the time of her death.
Most of the rest of the Kamehameha family had adopted western ways and religions. But she remained staunchly rooted in her cultural heritage. By this time, half of Hawaiians could read and write Hawaiian, the newly written language of the bible prepared by the missionaries. Many could also understand and speak English. While Princess Ruth spoke English well, she always used Hawaiian, even with English-speaking visitors who used a translator when conversing with her. She had been raised by Queen Ka’ahumanu, and so was likely raised Christian. But she rejected it and worshipped the traditional Hawaiian gods, and supported traditional religious practices such as hula and chanting.
Even though she owned multiple homes on her vast holdings, she preferred traditional dwellings. While she chose Hulihe’e as her chief residence for the rest of her life, she lived outside of the house itself, residing in a grass house on the grounds. This was no small structure. Its rock foundation was likely about one-third the footprint of the palace. The hale had glass windows and a wood door, and the floor was layered with smooth river rocks.
It was during this time that the home became the summer retreat for Hawaiian royalty. They came from Honolulu for rest and relaxation, staying at Princess Ruth’s invitation. King Kamehameha IV, Ruth’s half-brother, and Queen Emma loved Hulihe’e. In 1858, they brought 200 people with them when they visited the home and stayed four months. The house itself did not have much in the way of furnishings, so in a later visit (1861), the Queen sent for a dining room table and chairs, sofas, a piano, paintings, vases and more. That year Princess Ruth leased the house to King Kamehameha IV for $200 a year. He continued to make improvements, mainly in the gardens and furnishings, until his death in 1863.
When Princess Ruth died in 1883, the home and all her land holdings went to Princess Bernice Bishop. (See She could have been Queen – Bishop Museum.) King David Kalākaua bought the home from the estate of Bernice Bishop in 1885. King David had enthusiastically adopted western ways, especially after his world-wide tour in 1874. (See Art History 101; Sad History 201 – Honolulu Museum of Art/ Iolani Palace.)
He removed Princess Ruth’s grass house and gave the palace a make-over, plastering the inside walls and stuccoing the outer walls to cover the rough lava stones. He added Austrian-crystal chandeliers, crown molding, and California redwood pillars to grace the entry. He also enlarged the ocean-side lanai to its present size; the stairwell was added later as a fire-safety measure. He filled the home with beautiful refined furniture that he commissioned, much of which is still present, even adding electricity, and a telephone which was housed in the closet under the grand koa staircase.
Today Hulihe’e Palace is a museum under the care of the Daughters of Hawai‘i, restored to its state after King Kalākaua’s remodeling. The museum also houses clothing and personal things belonging to the late nineteenth century royal owners of the Palace including Princess Ruth’s large chair and King Kalākaua’s ukulele and uniforms. While it beautifully represents that time, I find myself drawn to the artifacts of pre-west contact.
The stairwell to the second floor displays King Kamehameha’s spear – 22 feet long. Elsewhere you see featherwork including lei and the cape of Prince Kuhio, fine woven mats, an ali‘i necklace of carved sperm whale tooth and their ancestor’s human hair (lei niho paleoa), and kāhili (royal feather standards). Kuakini’s office shows stone tools for everyday life including poi pounders, lava pots for dyes, and adze. Glass cabinets hold fishing lures and hooks made from shells and bones, artfully carved wooden calabashes (bowls) that stacked to protect the stored food contents, and gourds with narrow necks to capture fresh water from under-ocean springs. This room also contains King Kamehameha’s perfect sphere of a lava rock exercise ball, weighing 180 pounds! Lava rocks can be shaped into spheres by getting caught and tossed in a blowhole for a long time.
I was especially interested in the kapa cloth, and the wood and seed tools for making and painting it. Kapa was the material used by the Hawaiians for attire and sails before the introduction of cotton. The hala seeds that become little brushes can be found on the palace grounds.
At this one location, you can see the rapid change in Hawaiian life from stone tools to telephone, in the space of a century. Take the docent-led tour, and afterwards, sit out on the back lanai for a spell while you absorb all you’ve seen. Imagine what it must have been like…
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