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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 3, 2002

A staircase and a tale of an artist

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

The grand staircase at 'Iolani Palace is one work of art with a story that Carolyn and James Thomas of Volcano on the Big Island intend to tell today on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Forty descendants of the cabinet maker who created the staircase will gather at 10 a.m. at the Old Archives Building to celebrate the masterpiece of their patriarch with some genealogy, a few hymns and the presentation of documents about the antique carpentry tools that built the staircase.

Art history doesn't usually take the form of a family reunion. But Carolyn and James want the kids to understand their family heritage. The next time you climb the 'Iolani Palace staircase, think about what you're going to read here.

The family is descended from Christian Augustus Gertz, who arrived in Hawai'i at age 15 with his parents in 1865. His father opened a shoe store but Christian was apprenticed to woodworker Wilhelm Fischer.

We're not talking carpentry here. This discussion is about art. You can view Fischer's masterpiece at the Queen Emma Summer Palace. It's the koa cradle in the shape of a seashell with rosewood inlay and scalloped kou trim that he carved for Prince Albert, first born of Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma.

By age 23, his apprentice, Gertz, had crafted two of the pieces displayed at the Hawaiian exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. That year he bought out Fisher for $550 and went into business for himself on Hotel Street.

He soon wooed and won Meta Wilber, a young lady of 'O'okala, Hawai'i. The couple built a house on 'Alewa Heights. They didn't move in the rarified society of the Cookes and Castles. Instead, they were solid and respected members of a circle called the German cabinet makers.

The youngest daughter, Helen, recalled that after church on Sunday the whole family set out on foot for the matinee at the Palace Theater. They made an impressive parade; mama and papa in Sunday best, six daughters in gingham, five sons in proper hats, shirts and ties.

After the movie, the kids were allowed to join friends at the ice cream parlor before marching back up the hill.

How did Gertz come to build the grand staircase at 'Iolani Palace? When Kalakaua decided to build 'Iolani Palace, he named George Lucas, owner of the Lucas Steam Planing Mill, as general superintendent. Lucas commissioned Gertz to build the grand staircase.

Here's a young man barely old enough to vote. He's been picked to create the center piece of the new palace. How many sleepless nights did he spend dreaming up details on the balusters, designs for the carved handrails, decoration for the panels, a motif for the newel posts?

The massive staircase rises from the grand hall as if young Gertz had built them all his life. His descendants will celebrate his achievement, then James and Carolyn will take a second honeymoon at the historic Moana Hotel.