Monday, May 22, 2000
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Posted on: Monday, May 22, 2000

Washington: First lady launches restoration effort

Preserving the past at Washington Place

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Washington Place is rich with history.

But first lady Vicky Cayetano says Hawaii faces an enormous opportunity and challenge to properly care for and share one of its most historic structures, once the home of Queen Liliuokalani and the residence of governors of Hawaii since 1922.

Shortly after Vicky Cayetano moved in, she said, "I started looking into the housekeeping situation, and I would see things like draperies that were falling apart" in the public portions of the house.

Told by officials that there had been little or no money appropriated to care for the historic furnishings, "I said: Then we just have to raise the money. One way or another we have to do it.’

"I really see us as tenants here, for no more than eight years, that’s what we are," she said.

But the governor and Mrs. Cayetano also must see themselves as caretakers, not just for the next first family, but for all Hawaii residents today and in the future. She wants to make the historic downstairs rooms and grounds open to all of the people of Hawaii, all the time, and worthy of their attention because they are historically accurate to museum standards.

"When I came here I felt that people thought the governor and his family were living in this home and that you would come here only if you were invited because you knew the family or knew someone who did," she said.

"But when I leave, in two years, I would very much like for the people to say, This is our home, and we can show our friends and our visitors all about Washington Place.’ "

Foundation started

The first step toward a new, broader public life for the home was the creation of a new position of director of Washington Place, and the hiring of H. J. "Jim" Bartels, for many years the curator of Iolani Palace, to fill the new position. Gov. Ben Cayetano’s interest in the effort is reflected by the fact he used an executive assistant spot on his own staff to create the Washington Place job.

Last year, Vicky Cayetano established the Washington Place Foundation to raise public interest, seek donations of money and artifacts and time, and develop professional museum-level standards for the care of the building and its contents.

The effort is paying off.

At the urging of the foundation, the state committed $80,000 for the first exhaustive architectural survey of the 153-year-old building.

A small number of significant artifacts, such as an autographed copy of Liliuokalani’s autobiography, have been retrieved for future exhibit in the building.

And modest early fund-raising activities have netted close to $100,000 in only a few months time.

"Washington Place is the last, great under-utilized historical resource in the central city of Honolulu," Bartels says.

Careful development of its historical potential can add immeasurably to the understanding of Hawaii’s past by residents and visitors alike, he said.

Bartels and other scholars are tracking down the house’s history, separating fact from folklore.

Statements of the historic themes of the house have been drafted, as have plans for educational tours.

And a corps of 20 volunteer docents has been trained and is conducting tours on a trial basis.

Someday, within months, Vicky Cayetano said, she hopes to open the house for daily tours, which would be a logical extension of tours of Iolani Palace and other buildings in the Capitol District.

In the back yard, a model archaeology demonstration, just a sign of what could come, has unearthed in pit 8 feet deep several levels of crockery, bottles and even a single, pierced dog’s tooth of the kind Hawaiians once fashioned into anklets for hula.

Bartels, widely credited with a key role in the splendid restoration of Iolani Palace, says he will not repeat at Washington Place the traditional approach of focusing on one era at the expense of all others.

In the much smaller Washington Place, he and the first lady hope to give authentic glimpses into several slices of history:

The Mary Dominis Parlor (1840s to 1870s).

"The indomitable Mary Lambert Jones Dominis is a forgotten pioneer of early Honolulu," Bartels says of the woman who came to Hawaii in 1837 as the wife of Capt. John Dominis, the seafaring adventurer who traded fish and fur from Alaska to Hawaii.

Dominis wanted to build the finest house in the Pacific for his wife, who favored something like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, columns and all. The captain solicited the help of a seafaring friend, C. Brewer, to make sure the best windows and newest locksets were shipped out for the work.

After Dominis disappeared on a voyage to China in 1846, Mrs. Dominis moved into the new home in 1847 and rented out rooms, one of them to U.S. Commissioner Anthony TenEyck, who was negotiating a treaty with the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Mix of eras

It was TenEyck who suggested the Washington Place name, and King Kamehameha III declared that "it has pleased His Majesty the King to ... command that they retain that name in all time coming."

Today the room contains a mix of furniture from the Dominis era and replicas, surrounded by 1970s draperies, carpet, upholstery and chandelier from its modern use as a state reception room.

The initial plan includes conservation of an original Wilhelm Fischer table with a 496-piece inlaid top made of 12 different Hawaiian woods, refinishing and reupholstery of a period settee, and duplication of the lost original framed portraits of the Dominis family.

The Liliuokalani Parlor (1890s).

The Honorable High Chief Lydia Kamakaeha Paki came to Washington Place as the bride of Dominis’ son, John Owen Dominis, in 1862. It was after her mother-in-law’s death in 1889 that Mrs. John Owen Dominis, now known as Princess Liliuokalani, set the tone for the home, with massive koa furniture made possible by the advent of new sawmills in Hawaii, including her koa piano.

The plan: conservation of the only two remaining feather kahili, royal standards evolved from fly whisks associated with Polynesian chiefs among 160 originally in the home, and duplication of lost original framed portraits of the Hawaiian royal family.

The Queen Liliuokalani Bedroom.

"I have such a sense of responsibility," Vicky Cayetano says as she moves quietly through the simple rectangular room on the ewa-mauka corner of the original house, a room dominated by the 90-inch-wide late Victorian American mahogany bed in which Queen Liliuokalani died on Nov. 11, 1917.

"This is the prize here," Bartels says, and its complete restoration will be the centerpiece of the immediate project.

Researching rooms

The plan calls for research to identify and obtain appropriate draperies, floor coverings, textiles and artifacts for the room.

Original furnishings will be conserved, substitute furnishings appropriate to the period will be introduced, and small object exhibit cases will be set up to show some of the queen’s personal treasures.

An early draft budget for the work Bartels envisions totaled about $1.6 million, including $300,000 for renovations in the second-floor residence portion of the structure.

The original second floor has been "remodeled out of existence," and would have to be rebuilt entirely if it were to be restored, "not impossible but very expensive," Bartels said, so that is not in the plan.

The fundamental fact, Bartels said, is that museums, especially when they consist of old historic buildings, are extremely expensive to maintain, and this one will become only more expensive as years pass.

Vicky Cayetano’s creation of the Washington Place Foundation seemed the best approach, he said, because it will create an opportunity to tap private as well as public money for the preservation of the building.

The state budgets $230,000 a year for the operation of Washington Place, not counting maintenance services provided by the Department of Accounting and General Services, security from the Department of Public Safety, and the yard work done by the Department of Land and Natural Resources along with other state grounds.

A few legislators occasionally question spending money to provide a governor’s residence at Washington Place, and others have suggested that the building be completely converted to a museum.

The Cayetanos and Bartels are walking a middle ground between those positions.

"The docents who were here when I came told me they felt there should always be a family in residence at Washington Place to keep the home alive," Vicky Cayetano said. "They said that’s what the queen would have wanted; not just a museum piece, but a residence that was alive as well as accessible for the people to enjoy."

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