Mar 04, 2012
Although the order known as Freemasons is popularly thought of as a secret society, it's really more of an upright citizens brigade with private rituals than a society with secrets. But what was hidden in the forgotten safe in Honolulu's Freemasons lodge building was more like a scene right out of "National Treasure."
"It was a gun safe, hidden under the stairs," said local Mason Mark Lovell, describing what turned up as the Makiki lodge building was being renovated last year. Amid the debris and plaster dust, workers opened the safe and found various Masonic documents and artifacts stored away.
"Except that they were written and signed by people like King David Kalakaua and John Dominis," marveled Lovell. "A treasure trove!"
Where: 364 S. King St.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Sunday
Tours: Reservations required for docent-guided tours, $20 ($15 kamaaina/military); self-guided audio tours, $13; basement galleries only, $7; free kamaaina admission on first Sunday monthly
Info: www.iolanipalace.org or 522-0822
Note: Children 4 and under not allowed on tours
Kalakaua ruled from 1887 until his death in 1891, when his sister, Liliuokalani, was proclaimed queen. Dominis was her husband.
Kalakaua's obsession with Masonic ritual will be on display at Iolani Palace beginning this week, part of "Royal Pageantry," a larger exhibition showing off the merry monarch's love of pomp.
"We're now able to use the gallery in the palace basement for exhibits," said palace curator Heather Diamond. "It used to hold the crown jewels, but those are now upstairs."
The palace basement used to hold a confusing warren of legislative offices. Creating exhibition space in the area has been in the works for some years.
"It expands the way we can tell our stories," said Diamond.
"It's occurring in two parts, first a renovation and then exhibit cases are being built with special lighting. Some of the work was done as far back as 2003, partially through state funding."
Freemasonry dates back to the 1600s, and it spread quickly from Europe throughout the world. The cornerstones are good citizenship and charitable works with a sense of historical continuity.
Although the fraternity's primary symbols are the carpenter's level and architect's compass, the "buildings" it creates are philosophic constructions. The symbols are used to instruct ethical lessons.
Kalakaua saw parallels between Freemasonry and ancient alii practices; not only was he an enthusiastic Mason, he tried to create corollary Hawaiian organizations such as Hale Naua.
In 1879, with full Masonic rites, the cornerstone of Iolani Palace was laid, and Kalakaua's temple, Lodge le Progres De l'Oceanie, still meets today on the palace grounds.
"I think they used to meet in the attic," said Diamond.
There was a practical reason for Kalakaua's lodge activities. The monarchs of Europe were also enthusiastic Masons, and through the organization, Kalakaua cemented fraternal ties with other royalty.
"When the Honolulu Masons contacted us and asked if they could loan us the Kalakaua Masonic items, it helped created the exhibit," Diamond said. "We don't normally get the chance to tell this part of the story."
"Kings and potentates, they're all Masons," said Lovell. "And here we'd found these items hidden away, just gathering dust."
There were no guns in the gun safe, by the way. Lovell, who's in charge of indexing and filing for the organization, thinks it was used as "a hasty attempt to preserve these items at least a half-century ago. It wasn't climate-controlled and there's some degradation.
"We're finding out that Freemasons were integral to the history of modern Hawaii," Lovell said. "Many of the best-known leaders during the royal era were Masons."
That doesn't mean they were on the same page. During the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Lovell pointed out, there were Masonic lodges fighting on both sides.
"Royal Pageantry" is being installed at the palace and will be completed in mid-March, although visitors can see what's already in place. It is part of general admission to the historic site.