In 1806, Focke and Melchers, a shipping and trading company, was founded in Bremen, Germany by Carl Melchers and Carl Focke. Its business was centered on emigration to the US and transportation of goods from Cuba, Mexico and the US.
Three brothers, Heinrich (1822-1893,) Georg (1827-1907) and Gustav (1830-1902) formed branches of Melchers Company, first in Mazatlán, Mexico (1846,) then seven years later in Honolulu (1853.) In 1854, with the death of founder Carl Melchers, eldest son Laurenz Henrich Melchers took over; the company was renamed to C Melchers & Co and started to expand into the Asian market.
That year, Gustav Cornelius Melchers and Gustav Reiners completed their building on Merchant Street in downtown Honolulu. Once the main street of the financial and governmental functions in the city, Merchant Street was Honolulu’s earliest commercial center. (Melchers building is still there and today is the oldest commercial building in Honolulu.)
Melchers and Reiners were German importers, commission merchants, and ship chandlers (retail dealers who specialize in supplies or equipment for ships.) Their store was on Merchant Street back then, what is now known as Queen Street was actually the water’s edge.
The store was officially opened on February 20, 1854, with a celebratory luncheon. The structure was fitted with koa counters and glass-enclosed shelving. It sold mostly European goods, items found in most dry goods stores of that time, including fabrics, cigars and china goods. It served as Honolulu’s general store.
On April 26, 1856, RC Wyllie, through the Polynesian, Melchers was acknowledged as Consul of Bremen, Germany for the Hawaiian Islands and later (1858) Lubeck, Germany. Gustav Reiners served as Royal Prussian Consul (and appointed Melchers to that position when Reiners was away.)
It appears Melchers returned to Germany in the late-1850s. Reiners returned to Germany in 1861, leaving the business in the hands of Frederick August Schaefer.
In 1867, Schaefer, who had been a clerk of the store in the 1850s, purchased the firm from Melchers and Reiners and continued to operate the business. Schaefer was Consul of the Kingdom of Italy. (HABS)
Schaefer was born in Bremen, Germany in 1836 and came to Hawaii in 1857, to work for Melchers & Co in Honolulu. He became a partner in the firm in 1861 and bought out his partners in 1867, continuing the business as FA Schaefer & Co. on the same premises.
On the 50th anniversary of Shaefer’s company, the newspaper noted, “Mr. Schaefer has resided In Honolulu all of these years, and now has a beautiful home in Nuʻuanu (the former residence of R. C. Wyllie (foreign minister in the 1850s-1860s.)) He still comes down to his office each morning although he is getting along in years. The firm itself has long been one of Hawaiʻi’s substantial assets.” (Honolulu Star-bulletin, July 18, 1917)
Upon Schaefer’s relocation in 1920, Melchers’ building became the home office of Hawaiian Dredging Company, Ltd, an engineering and construction firm with seven branches elsewhere in the islands. Hawaiian Dredging, in turn, sold the building on April 6, 1954 to the City and County of Honolulu. (Greer)
The original structure was a three-by-four-bay building, its Merchant Street facade being the longer, the Kaʻahumanu Street facade the shorter. The structure has a basement, which was unusual at that time for a building so close to the ocean. The coral stone building was topped by a hipped roof above a simple cornice.
Probably in 1937-38, the Building was significantly enlarged (by about 75%) by the addition to the west/ʻEwa of another two bays, each with two windows at the second level. The connecting bay has a wide door at the lower floor. The lower level of the corner bay has no doors. These two bays may be conversions of the earlier alley and one-story warehouse-style structure.
Stucco and paint now cover most of the building. However, take the time to check the back of the building (makai side) to see the coral blocks. A good way is to take the breezeway down through Harbor Court (you’ll be walking on what once was Kaʻahumanu Street (also called Laulau Lane, due to the products sold along the former street.))
Here are a couple other Melchers mementos – the site where the Melchers building sits was the center of controversy in the early-1840s.
April 25, 1825, Richard Charlton arrived in the Islands to serve as the first British consul. A former sea captain and trader, he was already familiar with the islands of the Pacific and had promoted them in England for their commercial potential (he worked for the East India Company in the Pacific as early as 1821.)
In 1840, Charlton made a claim for several parcels of land in Honolulu. To substantiate his claim, Charlton produced a 299-year lease for the land in question, granted by Kalanimoku. There was no disagreement over the parcel, Wailele, on which Charlton lived, but the adjoining parcel he claimed, Pulaholaho, had been occupied since 1826 by retainers and heirs of Kaʻahumanu (a portion of which is where the Melchers Building is situate.)
In rejecting Charlton’s claim, Kamehameha III cited the fact that Kalanimoku did not have the authority to grant the lease. At the time the lease was made, Kaʻahumanu was Kuhina Nui, and only she and the king could make such grants. The land was Kaʻahumanu’s in the first place, and Kalanimoku certainly could not give it away. (Hawaiʻi State Archives) The dispute dragged on for years.
This, and other grievances purported by Charlton and the British community in Hawai‘i, led to the landing of George Paulet on February 11, 1843 “for the purpose of affording protection to British subjects, as likewise to support the position of Her Britannic Majesty’s representative here”.
Following this King Kamehameha III ceded the Islands and Paulet took control. After five months of British rule, Queen Victoria, on learning the injustice done, immediately sent Rear Admiral Richard Darton Thomas to the islands to restore sovereignty to its rightful rulers. On July 31, 1843 the Hawaiian flag was raised. The ceremony was held in area known as Kulaokahuʻa; the site of the ceremony was turned into a park, Thomas Square.
Here’s another Melchers memento; in the Hawaiian legislature of 1878, Walter Murray Gibson, then a freshman member from Lahaina, Maui, proposed a monument to the centennial of Hawaiʻi’s “discovery” by Captain James Cook. The legislature approved and he chaired the monument committee.
At the request of the monument committee, a bronze statue of ‘heroic size’ (about eight-and-a-half-feet tall) of King Kamehameha was designed, depicting the King at about 45-years old.
The statue was shipped on August 21, 1880, by the bark ‘GF Haendel,’ and was expected about mid-December. On February 22, 1881, came word that the Haendel had gone down November 15, 1880, off the Falkland Islands. All the cargo had been lost.
The statue had been insured for 50,000 marks (about $12,000) with Gustav C Melchers of Bremen through FA Schaefer of Honolulu. With the proceeds, a replica was ordered.
Ultimately, the original was recovered and repaired and set in Kapaʻau, Kohala on the Island of Hawaiʻi (May 8, 1883.) The duplicate was set in front of Aliʻiolani Hale on King Street in Honolulu (February 14, 1883.)