Hawaii is the only state in the union to boast of royal palaces, and Iolani is the grandest of them all. Set on a ten-acre fenced lot with mature trees, it was for the time and place, massive, bombastic, exuberant, and expensive to build. With its construction rose King Kalakaua's hopes of bolstering the image of Hawaii as an independent kingdom, a part of the brotherhood of civilized nations of the world, or, as former governor of Maui John M. Kapena noted on the last day of 1879 at the laying of the cornerstone, “In the past fifty years, during which we have enjoyed the benefits of an enlightened civilization, many and great changes have taken place, affording a noble contrast to the times of our forefathers. . . . Our earnest desire, our prayer and our hope, is that our Gracious King shall be granted long life,—to his family peace, health and honors; and for the nation and the Government, continued progress and prosperity to the end of time!” Such prayers and hopes were not to be answered, and Iolani Palace, like so many inflated architectural statements of the past, stands in a succession of vain efforts to support a power that had passed its zenith.
At two stories in height on a raised foundation, the 140 × 100–foot building gains much of its grandiloquence from its corner mansard-roofed towers and central seventy-six-foot-high tower. Lanai with segmental arches carried by Corinthian columns traverse all four sides of both stories, assuring ample ventilation and indoor-outdoor flow. Empire Foundry in San Francisco fabricated the cast-iron columns, but the verandah railings with their puloʻuloʻu (a tapa-covered ball on a staff) ornamentation, a symbol of Hawaiian royalty, were the work of the Honolulu Iron Works.
Disagreements over the level of detail provided in Baker's plans, as well as issues involving management of the project, led to the architect's dismissal less than three weeks after the cornerstone was laid on December 31, 1879. In February 1880, Baker departed for Australia. His successor, Irish-born Charles J. Wall, like Baker, had forsaken San Francisco's depressed economy for Honolulu, arriving two months after Baker in August 1876. His contribution to the design of Iolani Palace is unknown. However, it was reported that he “skillfully modified and improved” some of the objectionable features of the original design. He was relieved of his duties as palace architect in late 1880.
Noted critic Montgomery Schuyler in Architectural Record (January 1900) castigated the architects' dishonest use of materials: brick walls covered with scored concrete, concrete balustrades, and cast-iron columns resembling stone. “Nothing could be more revolting in its cheap pretentiousness than the front of this palace, with the two tiers of stilted segmental arches in the wings, the stilted round arches at the centre, the meaningless keystones and the lavishness of unstudied ornament.” Schuyler did not comment on the interior, with its central hall plan, koa grand stair, and use of other native hardwoods, including kou, kamani, and ohia, as well as white cedar and walnut. Nor did he mention Kalakaua's early installation of telephone lines and electricity. The concrete fountain of 1921, at the rear of the property, marks the location of the artesian well which originally supplied the palace complex with water.
This elegant palace served as a royal residence for a scant eleven years, then was converted to government offices following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. In this capacity it housed the governor, legislature, and other entities. Over the years, it languished and fell in dire need of repairs. The completion of the state capitol liberated it from government functions, and the Friends of Iolani Palace, in cooperation with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, commenced the restoration in 1970 under the architectural guidance of Geoffrey Fairfax. The result, which includes the restoration of many of the original furnishings, is on display daily.
The domed, octagonal bandstand, which now stands at the S. King and Richards streets corner of the grounds, was erected in 1883 for the coronation of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. Originally a frame structure, it was provided with a concrete foundation, balustrade, and columns in 1919.