On the Kukui Street side of Central Middle School is a sign in big letters that says “Keelikolani School.” The site has an interesting history, but was it ever named Keelikolani? I wondered.
The story starts with Princess Ruth Luka Keanolani Kauanahoahoa Keelikolani (1826-1883). She was a cousin of Bernice Pauahi and direct descendant of Kamehameha I. Kamehameha IV and V were her half brothers.
Princesses Ruth and Pauahi had no children survive to adulthood and decided to pool their estates to create a school for the children of Hawaii after their deaths.
Ruth had by far the larger estate — over 350,000 acres. But because Pauahi outlived Ruth by 17 months, she gets most of the credit for creating Kamehameha Schools, which I think is unfair.
Princess Ruth was an imposing figure at 6 feet tall and 440 pounds. She carried candy in her pockets to reward children brave enough to approach her, whom she adored.
Ruth saw a picture in a mainland newspaper of a magnificent, three-story home with a tower. It was decorated with Victorian-era trimmings. She used this picture to design a mansion — a palace — on a nearly 5-acre property on Emma Street in an area called Kaakopua.
She named it Keoua Hale, after a Hawaiian alii who was possibly Kamehameha I’s father. Keoua means “rain cloud.”
Historian Peter Young said that “the gaslit interior of the mansion was celebrated for its ornate plaster work and frescoes. It was the most expansive residence of the time; it was larger than Iolani Palace.”
Valuable oil paintings hung on the walls, and “extremely handsome kahilis were placed in suitable positions,” the Commercial Advertiser reported.
The home was built in 1883, and Ruth threw a grand reception and ball as a 57th-birthday party and housewarming. A tent 150 by 60 feet was erected for the guests’ comfort. King Kalakaua, Queen Kapi‘olani, Princess Likelike, Princess Lili‘uokalani and most of the social and business elite attended.
A dozen cattle, 200 hogs and numerous chickens were the basis for the grand luau. His Majesty led a quadrille — a square dance — with music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. Dancing continued through the evening, and a lavish supper was served at midnight.
The princess continued to entertain all comers on the following day, the Commercial Advertiser said. “The tables were again spread in the great tent and bountifully filled with all the good things of native Hawaiian fare.”
The party lasted three days.
Unfortunately, Ruth, who suffered from heart disease, fell ill afterward and retreated to her Kailua-Kona grass home, Hulihee, where she died. She never lived in Keoua Hale.
Bernice Pauahi and her husband, Charles Reed Bishop, moved into Ruth’s home and made it the social center of Honolulu. Even tourists came to marvel at the palace.
Following Pauahi’s death 17 months later, the trustees of her estate met in the house in April 1885.
Kamehameha Schools might have occupied the site, but the Board of Education offered $600,000 so that Honolulu High School — the predecessor of McKinley High School — could move in.
The Fort Street English Day School, which had opened in the basement of the Fort Street Church (now Central Union Church) in 1865 on Beretania and Fort streets, was bursting at the seams.
In 1869 it moved to Fort and School streets, and in 1895, into Princess Ruth’s palace, and became Honolulu High School.
An interesting inclusion in the sale was Ruth’s janitor, Wah Yuen. When the property was sold to the government for school purposes, a clause was inserted in the contract that he be retained there for the remainder of his days.
Wah Yuen had a cottage on the property near an artesian well. A 1927 article in the newspapers said Wah Yuen, then 63, had spent most of his life on the site. He took the same pride in the appearance of the school that he did in the upkeep of the palace of the princess.
Honolulu High School continued to grow — it was Oahu’s only public high school. In 1907 it moved to the corner of Victoria and Beretania streets and changed its name to McKinley High School, for the president who helped facilitate Hawaii’s annexation to the United States.
Princess Ruth’s palace became Central Grammar School. A 1916 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article said an “addition has been christened ‘Keelikolani school’ by the board.” The addition, facing Kukui Street, has the words “Keelikolani School” to this day.
In 1917 The Honolulu Advertiser reiterated that “Central Grammar School was renamed Keelikolani School.”
However, the name “proved too difficult for the Anglo-Saxon and Oriental tongues,” another article stated, and the Central Grammar School name was retained.
Around 1927 the wooden structure was razed, and a modern concrete building was erected. It had offices, restrooms, a kitchen and cafeteria, an auditorium that could hold 600, and 30 classrooms which could accommodate 1,500 students.
Back in the early 1900s, most American children attended only elementary school, if that, but a movement was underway to extend their educations and many junior high schools were forming.
In 1928 the grammar school became Central Junior High School, and the school paper was called the See Jay.
In 1932 it became an intermediate school, and in 1997, a middle school.
How many of America’s children can say that their school was once a royal palace?
Wayne Sumida said he attended Central Intermediate from 1963 to 1967.
“Physical education classes were held across Vineyard Street, and we had to use the pedestrian overpass to get there. Lunch was 25 cents back then, and midmorning breakfast of juice and crackers were 5 cents. The best class to have was band since it was air-conditioned.”
Next time you drive past Central Middle School, see whether you can imagine Princess Ruth and Hawaii’s alii celebrating the grand opening of her home there in 1883.
Have a question or suggestion? Contact Bob Sigall, author of the five “The Companies We Keep” books, at Sigall@Yahoo.com.