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Vol. 14, no. 5
October/November 2011


The Restoration (Page 4)
Restorer Bob Arkus works on the circular sofa that today is in the music room. It was found in Australia, shipped to the Islands and restored in Arkus' Kalihi garage. "The reason I like restorations," he says, "is there's only one way to make it, and that's factory correct, no deviation."
To those who understand
the complexity of Hawai‘i’s history, ‘Iolani Palace has always represented sovereignty. In 1993, thousands gathered at the palace to mourn the centennial of the overthrow, and the building was draped in black. “For me, as a Native Hawaiian, when you go in there and you know the story of what took place, you feel it, you can sense it,” Souza says. “But you don’t have to be Native Hawaiian to appreciate its mana. It’s a place that we have great reverence for, the pain and sorrow but also the joy that took place there.”


The second great phase of ‘Iolani’s period room restorations is now underway, begun in 2003 when Stuart Ching was hired as curator, and the music room is the first room to be restored in this century. For the first time since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, the Gold Room looks much as it did when the royals played and sang in it. And the tale of how it came back to life is a story that spans thousands of miles and countless hours.


Take, for example, the ornate circular sofa that now sits in the room. Earlier this year it was in a fluorescent-lit garage down a narrow street in Kalihi—beneath a dropcloth and easy to overlook between an electric blue motorcycle and a trash can. But there it was: an elegant confection on its way to being reupholstered in a warm yellow hue. The sofa had come from Australia, a nineteenth-century piece with its original padding intact, tracked down by researchers who believe a sofa just like it once sat in the music room. They had little to go on: With no known monarchyera photographs of the music room, they had been forced to piece together a vision of the room by using a series of small nonvisual clues. For the sofa those included a 130-year-old receipt that listed furniture purchased for the palace in 1881. The bill of sale showed furniture Kalakaua ordered from Boston-based A.H. Davenport Company, a company that also furnished the White House. Among the items on Kalakaua’s list: a circular sofa for $176.


Once found in Australia, the sofa was sent to the Kalihi garage of Bob Arkus, an expert restorer hired to reupholster it. When Arkus began, the sofa was emerald green. He smoothed buttery yellow fabric over it, then diamond-tufted the back, dimpling it with buttons that he covered with the same sunny fabric. Later he added braided trim and a gathered band.


Arkus is tall and slim and has an easygoing manner that can’t quite hide the intensity of a perfectionist. He spent much of his boyhood in his father’s furniture shop in California, where he eventually learned the family trade, one he says is quickly dying out. He moved to the Islands in 1976 to work on cars, and he still does work on cars, which explains the frosted teal 1970 Cadillac parked a couple of feet from the sofa.


Arkus has done a number of historic restorations locally, including refurbishing one of Kalakaua’s chairs and redoing the original pews at Kawaiaha‘o Church, the Honolulu edifice that dubs itself “the Westminster Abbey of Hawai‘i.” He describes working on a project for the palace as the “fulfillment of a dream” that he first had upon strolling through the Bishop Museum and seeing royal artifacts nearly four decades ago.