Jim Bartels has eyes like youve never seen before. Luminous eyes that can see into the past, wide eyes that can see into the future.
He leads visitors through Washington Place, sharing secrets, painting vivid stories of the people who lived there, and speaking lovingly of the woman who is most closely associated with the home.
He points to Queen Liliuokalanis koa piano sitting silent in a corner, the place where she was arrested. He calls attention to her favorite chair and tells how she would receive visitors there. His voice lowers in reverence as he speaks of the queen, talks of both her horrible sadness and great joy in this house, and when he turns his eyes toward the chair she used to favor, for just a second, youre sure shes there.
As director of Washington Place, Bartels has been working with first lady Vicky Cayetano on a plan to make the historic home into a museum. The idea is to build new living quarters for the governor adjacent to the main house. Washington Place would still be used for state dinners and official functions, but would be open daily for guided tours.
A foundation has been created to raise private money for the project: $1 million to build new quarters for the first family and $1 million for restoring the main house and turning the upstairs into a gallery. The foundation is also seeking $1 million from the Legislature.
The past is alive here. The house has been a center of power for 153 years. Even now, new stories are being discovered about the queen. Bartels wants to make sure these are shared well into the future.
Like the story of Liliuokalani and the flowers.
During the Spanish-American war, Honolulu was overrun by young soldiers. One day, the queens attendants came to her, upset that soldiers had been picking flowers from the Washington Place gardens. Liliuokalani heard their concerns, then gave them a most unexpected command.
The next morning, she instructed, they were to go out into the gardens and pick every single flower. Then they were to stand outside Washington Place and give the flowers to the passing soldiers. Theyre on their way to war, the queen noted. They may have just a few months to live.
Bartels sees two sides to this story. Queen Liliuokalani had aloha for the soldiers, yes, but also, she took control of the situation and made herself the generous monarch instead of a helpless victim.
Bartels, who has studied so much of the queens writings and belongings during his years as director of Iolani Palace, believes Liliuokalani left many examples of her strength, her courage and her aloha in Washington Place. Hes sure she left messages in poetic letters, in simple gestures, in symbolic acts, to inspire and encourage her people to stand tall for generations to come.
When talk of this project surfaced, I was skeptical. Why turn attention and effort to preserving history when so many current priorities go unsupported? But to hear of some of the lessons Washington Place has to offer, lessons that can help us shape Hawaiis future, it makes sense. More than that, it seems crucial.
This may not be the right time to be asking the Legislature for money for a museum project, not with the schools so hungry and the teachers so insulted. But if the governor is looking to leave a legacy, though it may not be the right time, its the right project, especially when seen through the eyes of Jim Bartels.
Lee Catalunas column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.