By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
As 'Iolani Palace unveils its newly refurbished Music Room in October, it will be a triumph of art and passion over drudgery and detail.
The palace, built in 1882, was the home of King Kalākaua and his queen, Kapi'olani, and, later, Queen Lili'uokalani. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, many of its treasured furnishings were lost, and it gradually fell into disrepair.
The goal has been to bring the Music Room back to its initial stature. Leading the team charged with that monumental task, 'Iolani Palace curator Stuart Ching has morphed into many things: archivist, archaeologist, coach, conservator, diplomat and super sleuth. He's a little bit Indiana Jones, Dave Shoji, Henry Kissinger and James Bond all in one.
Ching brought together a team of experts from all over the country and worked with companies worldwide to restore the room and create replicas of everything inside it, from fabrics printed more than 200 years ago to handcrafted furnishings. His team includes, for example, Mark Harpainter, a furniture conservator from Berkeley who worked on pieces that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
For centuries, beloved items that belonged in 'Iolani Palace were unknowingly bought at auctions and carried off to far-flung places, stored in family attics or subjected to the ravages of time and use. It is Ching's job to search throughout the world and identify these important historical artifacts, then to find a way to bring them home.
The Music Room is the first major project for the palace since the Blue Room was refurbished in 1992.
HUNTING FOR CLUES
The palace's mission is to research and authenticate every detail to make the Music Room look as much as possible as it did in the days of the monarchy. No one who spent time in that room is living today, so the team of experts pieced together details from photos in the state archives, Bishop Museum and the palace's collection, as well as decades of Honolulu newspaper images.
"Every object is a separate project," Ching said. Every minute detail is considered, down to the curtain tie-backs.
Clues were gleaned from old newspaper reports such as this one from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 16, 1886: "In the front is the music room, in which the heavy style of furniture is discarded for a lighter and more appropriate one, the appointments being in excellent taste."
One of Ching's most critical responsibilities is to identify and hire conservators in each area of expertise, from draperies to furnishings.
The palace has brought on fabric and furniture experts from throughout the world to study tiny remnants of fabric, faded wood chairs, and bits of carpet and draperies. They have also researched the practices of the original companies that made each item in the room as a special order for Hawai'i's beloved monarchs.
Upholsterers often leave clues behind — but you have to have a great deal of knowledge to read them.
"Upholsterers honor their predecessors' work and won't take it all off. They build on it. It's very forensic and archaeological ," said Nancy Britton, conservator for upholstered works of art for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who worked on restoring upholstery in the Music Room. For example, a conservator might find tiny fibers around a tack hole — and this would offer clues to the fabric used on the original piece.
The fabrics used in the draperies and upholstery for the Music Room offer interesting insights into what it takes to complete an accurate refurbishment.
Three tie-backs for curtains are all that remain of the original fabric furnishings from the palace. These were discovered at the Washington State Historical Society and returned to the palace in 1973.
Textile conservator Linda Hee, who lives in Nu'uanu, and Spencer Leineweber, director of the Heritage Center of the University of Hawai'i School of Architecture, were called in to help determine the original fiber and color of the drapery tie-backs. They are comprised of three layers: a silk exterior, wool interior and cotton core. Although they now appear gray, the original color was a rich blue, Hee said.
While it may seem odd that wools were used so frequently throughout the palace (on chairs, in carpets and draperies), Deborah Kraak, a specialist in historic textiles from Wilmington, Del., said it's all about the fashions of the times.
The monarchy were up on the latest in interior fashions. "Chic is a word that comes up often," Kraak explained.
Ching hired Kraak to inventory and analyze the textiles in the room. She conducted media searches to find mentions of the original fabrics, and studied and interpreted photos to analyze the drape, weight and light reflectivity. These are all clues to how and where it was made.
Kraak determined that the best company to design fabric for the Music Room drapes — 200 yards of custom-dyed rich gold satin mohair — would be the famed textile company Scalamandre, in New York. The company, in turn, arranged to have the fabric woven to its exacting specifications in Switzerland.
Celia Oliver, a Vermont textile specialist, has just arrived in Honolulu to complete and install the draperies. The public will be welcome to watch her work throughout June. Palace staffers advise that the best time to watch will be in the afternoon, when audio tours will be available.
Kraak and design historian John Burrows of Boston were hired to help with the Music Room carpets. The fabric experts looked extremely closely at photographs of the room to determine exact details.
"We had to see how it behaves on the floor and how much the chairs sink into it to determine it was probably a tapestry weave with no backing," Kraak said. "We will have it made with a stiff ground weave. It's a minor compromise to allow the traffic of the public."
Other elements of the Music Room are exceedingly important to the palace history — as well as the history of Hawai'i.
Kings Kamehameha III, IV and V, King Lunalilo and King Kalākaua all sat in a throne chair placed in the room. A photo of Queen Lili-'uokalani standing in front of the chair was key to the refurbishment, and experts studied details of its exact appearance.
By studying palace receipts, Ching determined that the chair was made of koa by Christian Lafrenz in 1847. It was upholstered in crimson silk damask in a large-scale flower and leaf pattern.
After the overthrow of the monarchy, the throne was transferred to Bishop Museum, and its refurbishing is a joint effort with the museum, which has agreed to return it to the palace.
Seven occasional chairs have also been refurbished. They are made from koa and walnut, and feature a variety of motifs: grapes, shells and taro. The Gothic Revival chairs were originally ordered from Boston-based Davenport company in 1882.
Since they were sold at auction after the overthrow of the monarchy, each has a different history. They are being refurbished by the furniture expert, Harpainter.
The palace has searched for 30 years for one of eight window benches ordered by the monarchy in 1882. One has been found.
Martha Morse of Virginia returned a window seat to 'Iolani Palace that had been in her family for decades when she learned of its provenance. Morse visited the palace for the first time in March.
Ching knows there is another window bench out there in the world somewhere, and he is searching for it.
"Families often own things and they don't know they came from the palace," Ching explained. "When they find out, they are sometimes willing to donate them back to us."
The searching, researching and restoration will continue as the palace seeks to regain more of its historic glory.