Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the State Capitol This March

Almost exactly 10 years after statehood, Hawai‘i’s lawmakers made the move from a palace to the nation’s last state Capitol. Now, 50 years later, you’re invited to the celebration on March 15 and 16.
State Capitol Building
The state Capitol under construction in 1966.
photos: courtesy of james y. young, hawai‘i state archives, historic hawai‘i foundation


On a sunny March day in 1969, 3,500 people filed into rows of chairs or leaned against balcony railings on four floors of lānai, listening to Gov. John A. Burns. A light wind nudged the Hawaiian and American flags on either side of the stage in the building’s open-air atrium. “Our seat of government has moved from America’s only royal palace to America’s only open capitol,” Burns said.


The dedication of the new state Capitol building took place almost exactly 10 years after statehood. Fifty years later, the open structure is still unique among U.S. capitol buildings. Looking at photos from 1969, almost every element from the team of local architect firm Belt, Lemmon & Lo and Mainland firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates looks the same: the 90-foot-wide puka at the top of the building that lets in the sun; the twin cones of the chambers that reflect the state’s volcanic formation; the 40 columns, 60 feet high, representing palm trees; the sometimes troublesome pools that surround the building as the ocean wraps around our Islands.


“The Capitol is an architectural metaphor for openness, transparency, democracy and engagement,” says Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. “I was told by one of the architects of the Capitol that they deliberately made it so elected officials would have to engage with the public going to and from their offices and to and from the chambers. There are no back hallways. There are no secret elevators or secret staircases.”


The look of the Capitol won awards before construction even began. But it was the location that stirred up the state for years. In 1959, Gov. William Quinn selected the spot. But that decision was countered, criticized and outright mocked for more than five years by groups that wanted the seat of government elsewhere. There was a brief campaign for Lahaina, but the strongest secondary contenders were a plot of undeveloped land in Windward O‘ahu and Fort Armstrong, now Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park.


The Kailua location, across from the Pali Golf Course, impressed lawmakers the wrong way. During a tour in 1961, one unnamed legislator was heard saying, “Its very beauty is distracting. We would be looking out the window all the time, wishing we were playing golf.” Fort Armstrong proponents argued for the 100 acres of “magnificent shorefront property” in so-called Kaka‘ako Kai, versus the “woefully inadequate” 8-acre site then bordered by Beretania, Hotel, Punchbowl and Richards streets. “What shameful illustrations of the idiocy of the whole mess!” bemoaned a 1964 ad in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin promoting the harbor site.


Eventually the armory on the site selected by Quinn was demolished, the Halekoa Barracks moved, the part of Hotel Street that snaked behind ‘Iolani Palace closed and the Capitol became the center of state government.


“Our seat of government has moved from America’s only royal palace to America’s only open capitol.” — John  A. Burns


Fête at 50


March 15: On the 50th anniversary of the dedication, a ceremony will officially open a new exhibit at the Capitol. It will be the public’s first opportunity to see the photos, blueprints and documents once stashed in a time capsule secreted behind 3 inches of concrete and almost forgotten, until an architect reading an article about the dedication this year realized where it was. A new time capsule, this time housed in a stainless-steel container with a bolted cover, will go in its place. (The original was copper with a soldered lid, which caused some nerve-wracking moments when archivists had to cut it open.) People can suggest items to go inside through a state archives website.


March 16: A symposium, “Democracy by Design: The Hawai‘i State Capitol at 50,” will include public talks and discussions about the history, architecture, past capitals and legislative milestones from the last 50 years (moderated by HONOLULU’s own Robbie Dingeman) to give people a better sense of the past and a look to the future of the people’s relationship to government.


Register for the March 16 symposium at Eventbrite or at historichawaii.org


State Capitol Building

Completed building in 1969.


Want More Capital District History?

Walk around with the new story map or take a tour online.

By Robbie Dingeman


The Hawai‘i state Capitol stands in good company as one of many historic landmarks concentrated in the central government district of Honolulu.


Others include ‘Iolani Palace, Kawaiaha‘o Church, the statues of Father Damien and the Spirit of Lili‘uokalani, and the Aquarius mural in the Capitol courtyard.


The 1976 nomination to place the area on the national historic register expounded: “It is also a place of trees, shade and relative quiet; a place away from the city within the city. This district is a green open island standing between the high-density business district of downtown Honolulu and the hustling, bustling tourist-automobile-dominated environment of Waikīkī.”


To help people explore the district, the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, in cooperation with Cultural Surveys Hawai‘i, prepared an interactive story map and tour and created a photo scavenger hunt. Students from Mid-Pacific Institute contributed some of the content. Go to historichawaii.org to download the map on your computer or mobile device. See a few of the images below.


In case you’re wondering about that spelling, Capital District in Hawai‘i contains an “a” to refer to the most important city or governmental seat, while Capitol with an “o” refers to the building where lawmakers meet.


History Hunt: Can you identify where these markers are Downtown? Play our scavenger hunt game here!