Aliiolani Hale

Aliiolani Hale Sketch Plans and Construction

By 1866, the need for a new courthouse government building in the Hawaiian Kingdom was apparent. The old courthouse, completed in 1852, accommodated not only the judicial requirements of the young nation but also served as the reception hall for diplomatic ceremonies and official social functions. The legislature appropriated $40,000.00 respectively towards a new palace and a new government building. Delays ensued, and those figures were increased to $60,000.00 each by 1870. Two sets of plans, by Australian architect Thomas Rowe, for a royal palace arrived in Honolulu in December of 1871. While the idea of a new royal palace had since been postponed, the arrival of these designs was "opportune" in that construction of new government offices was about to begin. This second set of plans was easily modified to serve as a plan for the new capitol building. Thomas Rowe's design for a palace became the design for the new government building. On February 19, 1872, Kamehameha V laid the cornerstone for the new building.

The use of concrete blocks, a relatively new building material, "infinitely superior for both durability and ornament," was recommended and accepted by Public Works. Aided by two Australian stone masons, Superintendent Stirling, oversaw not only the construction but also supervised the making of the massive concrete pillars and stones at the building site. The blocks were so well constructed that nearly one hundred years later no deterioration had occurred. Convicts were brought from the prison to increase the workforce for the project. In 1874, during the reign of King Kalakaua, the building was finally completed.

The First Year

Lively events characterized Aliiolani Hale's first year. Already designated as the home of the Legislature, in May of 1874, the Judiciary Department also moved into the new government building. In July, the Law Library took up residence on the second floor with "3,000 law books and 2,000 scientific books." By September, Aliiolani Hale housed the first National Museum in the Hawaiian Kingdom. An appeal made to the public requested the donation of artifacts: "Old Hawaiian ornaments and utensils, Hawaiian minerals and preserved zoological specimens are particularly desired." C.J. Lyons made scientific use of the building late that year as an observation site for the transit of Venus. The transits of Venus had occurred only four times in 243 years and was then the best-known means of determining the dimensions of our planetary system.

Political Strife

Aliiolani Hale played a role in the Wilcox insurrection. Unhappy with the changes in the constitution of 1887, the young hapa-Hawaiian, Robert Wilcox, and several hundred armed men marched into the neighborhood on the morning of July 30, 1889. At 6:00 A.M., twelve of the men took over Aliiolani Hale, and the rest moved into the Iolani Palace yard. By noon, volleys of rifle shots were exchanged between Wilcox's men and government forces. Wilcox's men, stationed in the Palace yard, were surrounded by the government troops whose sharpshooters were placed in nearby buildings, including the tower of Kawaiahao Church. The rebellion came to a halt when government authorities hurled homemade dynamite bombs into the Palace yard scattering the rebellious constituent. In the small room beneath the clock tower, often used as an artist's studio at Aliiolani Hale, a sculptor was working on a bust of Kalakaua. He reported, on that day, that stray bullets created "a disturbing background" for his artistic endeavor.

 The Overthrow

Seeking to abolish the Hawaiian Monarchy, the Committee of Public Safety took over Aliiolani Hale on January 17, 1893. The Honolulu Rifles, a volunteer group of men who supported the Committee of Safety, assembled there in opposition to the loyalist guard stationed across King Street at the Palace. With horse blankets and boxes of hard tack, the Honolulu Rifles camped in the halls of Aliiolani Hale. Queen Liliuokalani, to avoid violence, abrogated the monarchy and the troops did not engage in armed conflict. After the establishment of the Republic of Hawai`i, most likely to disassociate the new government with the monarchy, the new officials renamed Aliiolani Hale, "The Judiciary Building." The legislature then moved to `Iolani Palace which was renamed the "Executive Building."

Aliiolani Reconstruction, Renovations, and Restoration

The first major reconstruction of Aliiolani Hale took place in 191l. The wooden beams and floors were badly eaten by termites, and the building was considered unsafe because it was not fireproof. The termite damage and safety factors were of such great concern, that rather than repairing, the interior, it was set on fire and only the exterior walls were left standing. Architects Ripley and Reynolds were engaged, and the result was the basic floor plan existing today, with a rotunda and double staircase. Steel beams were used to reinforce the floor and roof.

Hawai`i almost lost Aliiolani Hale in 1937 when the territorial planning board drafted plans to demolish the structure and build a new Judiciary Building. Former Chief Justice and Governor Walter Frear strongly opposed the idea, and the Honolulu Advertiser picked up the torch in support of Frear announcing that "The Old Judiciary Building is threatened by the march of progress." Instead of demolition, repairs and plans for a new wing were approved. Construction began in March of 1941 but was considerably hampered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December. With the attack and the declaration of Martial Law in Hawai`i, the availability of building materials and workers became uncertain. Military justice supplanted the territory's judicial process, and Aliiolani Hale was filled with military personnel. The new wing was finally completed in 1944, the same year that Martial law was lifted. In 1949, a second story was added to the new wing to finish the structure that stands today as Aliiolani Hale.

By 1951, the building, even with the new wing, was overcrowded and not providing adequate space for the needs of a growing Judiciary. In 1960, it was recommended that a new court building be constructed and that Aliiolani Hale retain the Supreme Court, the Land Court, the Administrative Offices, and the Law Library. In 1965, the interior of the building was refurbished at a cost exceeding the total expenditures for the building in 1874.

The celebration of the centennial of the laying of the cornerstone on February 19, 1972, was a doubly joyous event. Earlier that month, it was announced that Aliiolani Hale had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. An 18 member Restoration Committee for Aliiolani Hale was appointed in 1976, by Chief Justice William Richardson. The three-phased restoration and renovation began in 1978. The first phase covered the second story, the second the ground level, and the third, the grounds and Kamehameha Statue.

Aliiolani Today

Today, Aliiolani Hale houses the Supreme Court of Hawai`i, the court administration offices, a law library, and the Judiciary History Center. While decisions are made affecting the present and future of Hawai`i by the Supreme Court, the Judiciary History Center interprets over 200 years of law and judicial history in the Hawaiian Islands. Open to the general public and welcoming visits from classroom students, the History Center reflects the unique legal and judicial history of our islands from the days of kapu law to the present. From Monarchy to statehood, Aliiolani Hale has faithfully served the people of Hawai`i. Kings and queens have walked its halls. Revolutions have been lost and won around it. Sensational cases have been tried in its courtrooms. Since 1874, Supreme Court rulings affecting the future of Hawai`i and its people have been decided within its walls.

It is well over one hundred years since the cornerstone for Aliiolani Hale was laid. Today, we might look back on the words which Attorney General Phillips spoke in 1872 as prophetic. There is no doubt that since that year, Aliiolani Hale has fulfilled its charge to be "of such an enduring character that traditions and memories may cluster around it."

Scroll to top