The King and Urban Planning in Honolulu

I’ve been doing research on Honolulu urban planning and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been looking at the histories of Queen Square, Thomas Square, Queen Kapi’olani Park and other historical sites in Metropolitan Honolulu. Thomas Square was officially the first public park on O’ahu and was declared a national historical site by Kamehameha III. But urban planning was pretty much left to its own devices after Honolulu became the new royal capital in 1845 (or two years after the British take-over) except for some renaming of streets. For example, in 1850, Beretania (the Hawaiian transliteration of “Britania”) was renamed to Kamehameha St. Under Kamehameha V, it was renamed Kamehameha III Avenue. He found it to be a matter of poetic justice to rename “Beretania” in honor Kamehameha III who had so much difficulty with the British. Lunalilo upon his elections renamed the street back to Beretania where it has remained known today. 

King Kalākaua upon his election to the throne had dreamed a new Honolulu and one of his ambitions was to break up the ethnic ghettos. He disliked that Americans lived in one district (usually Manoa), the British in another (usually Nu’uanu), the Chinese in another and Hawaiians and everywhere else. The king believed that purely ethnic neighbors–he saw them as “reservations”– would be dangerous to long term national stability. The Homestead Act that was passed in 1886 allowed to King to use the Crownlands resettle both Hawaiians and indigent Asian populations and essentially allowed him to shift district populations. Chinese It was also around that time that a Parks Commission with John Bush, Archibald Clerghorn, and Robert Stirling was created under the Department of the Interior where Honolulu, Lahaina, Waimea (Kaua’i), and Kailua-Kona would have a series of public city parks and public nurseries where people could buy seedlings from edible plants from all over the world. In addition, the king had planed to remodel Honolulu to look less like Liverpool or San Francisco but more of its own unique Pacific identity. The king had plans to call in architects from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Italy, and Japan to help with a new city commission. The king also wanted to introduce replica of the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui of Tonga to mark his hope of a Polynesian confederation of nations. 

Unfortunately for Honolulu, the king’s ideas were stopped with Bayonet Constitution and with the restrictions of the national budget. In addition, it was clear to the American business community that the King was trying to dramatically re-orient Hawai’i policy-wise and psychologically away from the US and into Asia and Europe. That was probably true. By a 1876 law sponsored by Walter Murray Gibson, the Hawaiian Kingdom was an “Asiatic” and “Oceanic”, country that held the “Primacy of the Pacific” (primacy meaning first among equals not supremacy) among Polynesian nations and peoples. By the same law, Hawai’i was duty-bound to help other Asia-Pacific nations retain or regain their independence. The king emphasized this with his world tour in 1881 and upon his return wanted to showcase this national policy starting with its capital. 
The king understood the power that architecture and art had psychologically to a people and his shifting his policies could be dramatically emphasized in buildings and parks. Hale ʻĀkala, the pink Bengali and Moroccan private residence behind the newly built ‘Iolani Palace was once such example. ‘Iolani Palace itself with its Hawaiian motifs intertwined Italian, Chinese, and Greek architectural elements was another. 

Thomas Square, famous for its connection to “Restoration Day”, was also another project of the king. For more than thirty years, the park was neglected until the King appointed a Parks Commission which included John E. Bush and Archibald Cleghorn, father of Princess Ka’iulani, to rejuvenate the park. One of the things that the Parks Commission did was improve the layout of the park (which is where the Union Jack shape of its side walks), bring in water irrigation, build a bandstand, and plant palms and trees mostly from other  countries including from Indonesia as a tribute to the nations that Hawai’i had fraternal ties to. The park was well known for its durian trees planted by Archibald Cleghorn. The park’s southern banyan trees are descendants of Princess Ka’iulani’s famed banyan tree and may have been planted by the Princess and/or her father in 1887 according to Privay Council Acts 6, 7, 8, and 9 of April 1887. The Department of the Interior would later chastise Cleghorn and others for excessive use of funds. The “Union Jack” shape of the park, the water system, and the banyan trees are the few memories of that time that still remain. 

Even today, when you hear the words “the Hawaiian Kingdom” people normally instantly associate images of ‘Iolani Palace, the Kamehameha Statue, etc—all things built under the reign of Kalākaua–in their minds. Emphasizing power and memory are some of the powers that architecture holds But that was also one of the reasons why many in the American business community hated the king so passionately. He threatened the cultural, political, and economic hegemony that the US held over the Hawaiian Kingdom for over half a century with his form of “Iwikauikaua Nationalism”:  anti-colonialism; volunteerism, equality among peoples and genders; Hawaiian nationalism and internationalism This was notably expressed in the king’s urban planning ideas. 

One thought on “The King and Urban Planning in Honolulu”

  1. As this post dates to 5 years ago, I write to ask if your’e still researching and writing about this and related topics. I’m an urban historian (not currently affiliated with any institution), interested in researching certain aspects of Honolulu ‘s social history, and I would be grateful for your advice regarding secondary as well as primary source materials.


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