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 needs 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. (Friends of the Judiciary History Center of Hawai‘i)
Kamehameha V envisioned a civic center around the palace, and plans were made to purchase the Mililani premises on King Street, “a long and fatiguing journey over the dustiest street in the city.” (HABS)
“In 1871, (Robert Lishman) was summoned from Australia where he had been living for many years, by King Kamehameha V to come to Hawaii to superintend the construction of Aliʻiolani Hale, and now known as the Judiciary building.” (Independent, May 13, 1902)
On behalf of King Kamehameha V, Stirling wrote Alex Webster, Hawai‘i’s Counsul in Sydney, “As His Majesty’s Govt has within the next 18 months or two years to erect buildings of considerable magnitude, & the supply of skilled & steady builders her is very limited, and not equal to our requirements …”
“… His Excellency wishes you, if possible, to engage two young, steady & intelligent builders to come here, offering them the engagement for 12 months, paying their passage hither, and paying them $4 p day to begin with, and a promise of $5 p. day if they give satisfaction.”
“Our work will be chiefly done in concrete, so that simple stone cutters will not serve our purpose. What we want them for chiefly is to look after & teach the natives, and to set the blocks of concrete on the buildings.” (Stirling, February 25, 1871)
In a subsequent letter, Stirling wrote, “It is the intention of this Govt to build a new Royal Palace here, and to commence operations as soon as they can produce suitable plans …”
“… but, as we have not Architect here, capable of designing such a building, and as Architects in Northern Countries would not be likely to have a proper appreciation of the nature of the climate in the Islands, and its requirements …”
“… it has appeared to His Excellency probable, that in Sydney, where the summer climate is very similar to ours, as Architect might be found more likely to be able to design an appropriate building.”
“The style of building considered most suitable is the Italian, of one Storey in height; this however may to a certain extent be departed fro ti give variety of outline.”
“All the principal rooms must be on the ground-floor, but the Billiard-room, some of the bed-rooms, and perhaps the Ladies & Gentlemen retiring rooms might be in the second storey.”
“The main entrance should have a spacious Portico, semicircular or semieliptical in form, in front, flanked by wide Verandahs with columns of the Ionic Order; in fact it is desirable that the entire front and at least two sides of the buildings should be protected by a verandah of say, 15 ft wide.”
“About Twenty Rooms in all will be required, consisting, in addition to the spacious entrance Hall, of a Council Chamber of about 50 x 30 ft. An Audience Chamber about 40 x 40 ft with another room of similar dimensions adjoining it …”
“His Excellency requests that you will endeavor to get one or two sketches f such a building from one or more of your architects, shewing the Plans and elevations only, without entering into details until the design is approved”. (Stirling, June 24, 1871)
Sketches were sent back and Stirling followed up stating, “I am now directed by His Excellency to inform you that he has carefully studied all the Designs sent, and is much pleased with all of them …”
“… but owing to a difficulty about the site to be selected for the Palace – involving I believe a doubt as to the proprietorship of a portion of the land proposed to be occupied – he cannot yet, and may not for some time to come be able to say which of the designs will be chosen.”
“In one respect however, the arrival of the Designs was most opportune, as we were just commencing to build our New Govt Offices, upon a very indifferent Plan, and no sooner has His Excellency seen Mr Rowe’s Design B than he conceived that …”
“… with modification which I shall presently state – it would answer well as a plan for these offices, and further consideration confirmed him in this view, so that he has now determined to adopt it, & is consequently prepared to pay Mr Rowe the 100 additional for this design as p your agreement with him.”
The alteration of the Plan proposed, applies only to the wings, the body of the building remaining the same as before. The verandah all around will be dispense with, and will be retained only on the front and rear of the Main building. The Wings will be of the same length as in the Design, but will be 5 ft wider, and the semicircular ends will be cut off.”
“It is probable that the upper portion of the central tower may ultimately be used for a public clock, but in any case it will be necessary to have access to it, and His Excellency requests you to ask Mr Rowe how he proposes that this should be had, as it is not shewn in the design, and he cannot see how it is to be done without disfiguring the tower.” (Stirling, December 15, 1871)
Not receiving plans in time, Stirling then wrote, “With regard to the build of the New Govt Offices, I am directed by His Excellency the Minister of the Interior to say, that as it was impossible to wait for working drawings from Sydney before commencing, …”
“… we had to prepare them here, and consequently full two months ago we begun to mould blocks of concrete for the walls of the first story, and have now fully a third of what we require for it prepared.” (Stirling, March 17, 1872)
The cornerstone the Government Building was laid on February 19, 1872 with full Masonic ceremony. The new building was of concrete block, a technique first used in 1870 when the government built the Post Office building.
Although Stirling wished to support the first floor with iron girders, in view of the uncertainly as to the length of time it might take to procure them, wooden beams were used instead.
(In 1913, a system of steel columns, girders and beams supporting concrete slab floors and roofs replaced the earlier system. During the renovations, nothing of the interior seems to have been retained. In addition to the rearrangement of office spaces, the character of public spaces and circulation was completely altered.) (HABS)
Kamehameha V never saw the completion of the Government Building; nor did they build his new Palace. The Government Building officially opened by the Legislature on April 30, 1874. “‘Ali‘iolani House’ is the name by which the new Government house is to be hereafter known, by command of His Majesty (Kalākaua.)”
“‘Ali‘iolani’ was one of the titles given to Kamehameha V at his birth, and is now appropriately applied to the building which was projected under his reign.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 2, 1874)
The building is known as Ali‘iolani Hale; it is the former seat of government of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the Republic of Hawaiʻi and now houses the Hawai‘i Supreme Court and Judiciary History Center of Hawai‘i.