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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Termites gnawing away at Washington Place

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

It was the home of Hawai'i's last monarch and to 12 territorial and state governors and their families since 1922.

"The damage here is much worse than I expected," says H.J. "Jim" Bartels, director of Washington Place, examining a wall of the first-floor Queen Lili'uokalani Bedroom, where the deposed ruler died in November 1917.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

But Washington Place, the historic mansion on Beretania Street, has also been home to legions of voracious termites, according to historians and architects working to restore the 154-year-old building.

"There's a wide range of damage, here and there, throughout the house," said Washington Place Director H.J. "Jim" Bartels. "There's been a lot of damage over time."

The insects have bored through walls, doors, and major beams and columns. The state's Department of Accounting and General Services expects repairs to cost about $250,000 and is requesting bids from interested contractors.

Gov. Ben Cayetano and his family moved into Washington Place soon after he was first elected in 1994. First lady Vicky Cayetano, who has launched an effort to restore the building and open it to the public, said she had noticed termites there over the years, but that they had been eliminated by regular treatments. Even with the treatments, however, there is much damage to repair.

But long before the Cayetanos moved in, the hungry pests chewed through large sections of the Queen Lili'uokalani Bedroom on the first floor, which still contains the walnut bed in which the deposed ruler, the last of Hawai'i's monarchs, died on Nov. 11, 1917.

"The damage here is much worse than I expected," Bartels said as he peeled back temporary wall coverings hung in the room a few months ago, after old wallpaper was removed for a thorough inspection.

Termites have consumed entire sections of the walls' inch-thick fir planks and have left other sections crumbling around their original square nails.

For more than a century

Termites were introduced to Hawai'i by trading ships more than 100 years ago and cause an estimated $100 million in damage to homes in the state each year, according to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawai'i.

Washington Place was built in 1846 by Capt. John Dominis, a New England trader who disappeared with his ship during a voyage to China to purchase furniture for the house. The name Washington Place was suggested by U.S. Commissioner Anthony TenEyck, who rented a room from Dominis' widow.

Queen Lili'uokalani moved in after she married the captain's son, John Owen Dominis, in 1862. She was overthrown in 1893 and arrested two years later on charges of plotting to regain power. Her accusers searched the basement of Washington Place for an alleged cache of guns but turned up nothing.

Lili'uokalani watched from Washington Place as the American flag was raised over 'Iolani Palace when the United States annexed Hawai'i in 1898. The Territory of Hawai'i acquired the mansion in 1921. It has been the governor's official residence since.

Bartels examines a termite-eaten beam in the basement of Washington Place.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Bartels said the goal is to preserve as much of the building's original materials as possible.

"Because of the value of every bit of this house, we have to be sure we don't remove anything we don't have to and that we document well everything we remove," he said.

All the furniture must be taken out of the queen's bedroom before the work can begin, but her bed will not leave the house.

"We're determined that it not be moved out," Bartels said. "It hasn't left the building since her death, as far as we know."

In the basement, termites have chomped through massive fir support beams that were brought to Hawai'i from New England on sailing ships that made the treacherous voyage around Cape Horn. Newer beams have since been bolted in place to ensure the floors above remain strong.

"Would it fall down next month if we didn't do this work? No, but this is a long-term solution to the problems of the house," Bartels said.

Large columns that support indoor and outdoor lanai have also been damaged but can be repaired, he said. Some doors that date to 1846 also need work.

$1.2 million raised

In 1999, Vicky Cayetano established the Washington Place Foundation to raise money for restoring the building and creating a new residential annex behind it. The group has raised $1.2 million so far, and construction should begin in October or November, she said.

Creating separate living quarters on the property will make it easier to share Washington Place with the public, while still allowing future governors to use it for official functions, the first lady said.

"We'd like to have it ready for the next governor to move in," she said.

The foundation hopes to raise another $1 million to pay for exhibits and interior work at the existing building, and to eventually finance a $1 million endowment for its preservation, Cayetano said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.