Given that the United States was born amid an anti-monarchical fervor, it’s fitting that the sole royal palace within its confines is located more than 4,700 miles from the nation’s capital. There, amid the high rises and palm trees of downtown Honolulu, stands Iolani Palace, the home of Hawaii’s 19th-century royal dynasty.
After King David Kalākaua rose to power in 1874, he elected to tear down the deteriorating coral block building that housed his predecessors and erect an ostentatious new home in a style that reflected the grand palaces he had visited while touring Europe some years prior. The “Merrie Monarch” burned through three architects to get the residence he craved, winding up with a concrete-facing brick structure marked by six towers and open-air verandas stretching around all sides. The interior featured the lavish Throne Room, State Dining Room, and Blue Room to entertain dignitaries, along with a massive koa wood staircase to the private chambers of the second floor. Additional luxuries like indoor plumbing and a telephone pushed the final bill into the neighborhood of $350,000 before the palace opened in 1879, and that was before electricity was installed in the late 1880s.
Unfortunately, this display of extravagance only served Hawaii’s rulers for just over a decade. Kalākaua’s sister and successor, Lili’uokalani, was deposed in an 1893 coup orchestrated by American businessmen, and the palace became the offices of the provisional, territorial, and then state governments until 1969. Reopened to the public as a museum in 1978, Iolani Palace serves as a reminder of Hawaii’s days as a sovereign nation, as well as America’s complicated history with monarchies.
Although they never served as the residence of a monarch, a few other American structures retain the title of “palace” as the former home of a colonial authority. The best known is Governor’s Palace of Colonial Williamsburg, which housed seven British-appointed governors in Virginia and another two American-elected ones before the original building burned to the ground in a fire in 1781. Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina, opened its doors to just two royal governors and, coincidentally, was also destroyed in a fire, before being rebuilt after World War II. Further west, the 400-plus-year-old Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the oldest European settler-built public building still in use in the United States. And finally there’s the Spanish Governor’s Palace in Texas, the only surviving building of an 18th-century presidio that guarded the settlement of San Antonio, and likely the only government building that also variously functioned as a pawn shop, tire shop, and saloon until it was restored by the city in 1930.