Most houses at the time of Cook’s contact consisted of a framework of posts, poles and slender rods – often set on a paving or low platform foundation – lashed together with a coarse twine made of beaten and twisted bark, vines, or grassy fibers. This was then covered with ti, pandanus or sugarcane leaves, or a thatch of pili grass or other appropriate material.
When covered with small bundles of grass laid side by side in overlapping tiers, these structures were described as resembling haystacks. One door and frequently an additional small “air hole” provided ventilation and light, while air also passed through the thatching. Grass or palm leaves covered the raised earth floors of these houses.
When a chief needed a house, his retainers assembled the materials and erected the structure under the direction of an individual (kahuna) expert in the art of erecting a framework and applying thatch.
Many of these more modern royal residences were named – some were named after the material they were made from. Here are three such royal residences.
Hale Kauila (Downtown Honolulu – Queen Kīna‘u)
Hale Kauila (house built of kauila wood) once stood on the street in downtown Honolulu that still bears the name of this large council chamber or reception room (some refer to it as Kina‘u’s house.)
While the thatch is attached in the usual way, the posts are much higher than usual and have squared timber; but the most foreign touch, apart from the windows, are the cross braces at the top and between the posts and the plate (they were never used in genuine native work.)
The description by Captain du Petit-Thouars of this house (which he calls the house of the Queen Kīna‘u:) “This house, built in wood and covered with dry grasses, is placed in the middle of a fortification closed with a fence.”
“The platform on which it rests is high above the ground in the yard about 30 centimeters and it is surrounded, externally, a covered gallery which makes it more pleasant.”
“Its shape inside, is that of a rectangle lengthens; in one end, there is a flat shape by a wooden partition which does not rise to the roof.”
“This piece serves as a bedroom, in the remaining of the area, box, and at the other end, there is a portion of the high ground from 28 to 30 centimeters, which is covered with several mats: it is this kind of big couch that was placed the ladies and they are held lying on one side or stomach, or they stand to receive and to make room.”
Hale Lama (Waikīkī – King Kamehameha V)
King Kamehameha V’s Waikīkī home was built in 1866. It was called Hale Lama. As described by George Kanahele, the residence “was quite modest with only one bedroom, but was notable for its neo-Hawaiian architecture – a low, rectangular-shaped structure, with a high-pitched, hipped roof that was thatched and descended to the poles of the lanai that sounded three of the four exterior walls.”
“The design suited Waikiki’s climate perfectly. The high pitched roof allowed for the upward expansion of warm air, thus cooling the inside of the house, and the wide overhanging eaves kept out both sun and rain, while inviting the serenity and beauty of the natural setting.”
“It has been mentioned that the lama wood was especially used for building houses of the gods, that is, the thatched houses within the enclosures of the heiau or luakini, and its use in building the house for King lot, Kamehameha V, gave an excuse for its reported use by an old kahuna in the King’s establishment, for a house of prayer, and I am assured by an old resident that prayers to the gods were frequently offered therein”.
After the Kamehameha V’s death in 1872, the house and property went to went to Princess Ruth who bequeathed the property to Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The Princess and her husband Charles Bishop renovated and enlarged the house with servant quarters.
Hale Kamani (Lāhainā – Princess Nahiʻenaʻena)
When Keōpūolani returned to Maui to live her final years, she had a house on the beach in Lāhainā; her daughter, Nahiʻenaʻena, lived in her own home next door – Nahiʻenaʻena called her house Hale Kamani.
It had an early and convenient addition to the common grass house in a land where the people lived so generally in the open air, was the lanai, with extensions of the rafters at the same or a slightly reduced slope.
This verandah was, generally speaking, the most comfortable part of the house. This lanai was often detached as in the Hale Kamani and was sometimes large with walls of coconut leaves intertwined, and a nearly flat roof of similar substance which was intended to furnish shade rather than shelter from heavy rain.
At least one other Royal Residence was named after a native wood ‘Āinahau (Princess Kapi‘olani’s home in Waikīkī;) however, it was named such because it was situated in a hau grove, not that its wood was used in the structure.