Drive past Iolani Palace‘s typically staid stone facade this weekend and you’ll see it dressed up with colorful banners and red, white and blue bunting.

The 130-year-old palace — the only royal residence on U.S. soil — is ready for a big party Monday. Neil Abercrombie will be sworn in as the State of Hawaii’s seventh governor, and everybody’s invited.

The palace atmosphere, generally reserved for gubernatorial inaugurations once or twice a decade or other dignified events, could soon be the setting for a sizable annual shindig. The state is considering eliminating permit requirements for one day each year — Jan. 17, the anniversary of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources manages Iolani Palace as a state monument, and in 2008 established rules [pdf] to “recognize, protect and preserve the historic and cultural significance of the Monument and to meet the Monument’s educational mission to preserve the character of the era of Hawaii’s monarchy.”

Iolani Palace is a public gathering site, but permits are normally required for music, barbecues, pets, weddings, tents, generators, signs, flags and portable toilets, among other activities. If a proposed rule change goes through as currently written [pdf], any or all of those activities would be possible on the 17th day of every January without any paperwork.

Cultural Significance

State Parks Director Dan Quinn told the Board of Land and Natural Resources Wednesday that the proposed rule change is intended to accommodate groups larger than 25 people.

Asked by Kauai board member Ron Agor if “people are just going to show up” under the new rule, Quinn said, matter-of-factly, “People have been showing up.”

Iolani Palace served as the home of the territorial Legislature, then the state government until the current capitol complex opened in 1969. The palace has traditionally hosted gubernatorial inauguration events, though outgoing Gov. Linda Lingle was sworn in at the capitol rotunda, not the palace, in 2002.

Though Iolani Palace opened in 1882 and was home to only Hawaii’s final monarchs, it has become a powerful symbol of the Hawaiian Kingdom before American control.

It has been the primary location for many sovereignty events, including one on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow in 1993. Hawaiians also gathered there to express outrage over a court decision stopping Kamehameha Schools’ race-based admissions policy. And when Republican Sen. Sam Slom staged a statehood day rally at Iolani Palace in 2006, there were protests.

Outgoing DLNR Director Laura Thielen said some residents believe the state government doesn’t have the right to require a permit at all. The proposed rule change is an attempt to accommodate Native Hawaiians on an important day, she said.

Too Much Access?

In a strange twist on the normal dynamic of Native Hawaiians demanding increased access to government-controlled lands considered to be culturally sensitive — for example, during the debate of a new solar telescope atop Maui’s Haleakala in the same meeting Wednesday — some in the Native Hawaiian community are concerned that opening Iolani’s gates too wide could have adverse affects.

Quentin Kawananakoa, a former Republican state legislator and a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, said respect for the palace grounds is paramount. He’s vice chair of Friends of Iolani Palace and also the chair of a new organization, Aha O Iolani, that’s trying to unify the splintered Native Hawaiian community on palace issues.

Kawananakoa said while he’s not sure about the overthrow anniversary rule change, and thinks that some activities should still require permits for things like barbecues and pets, he supports a second aspect of the proposal.

The additional change would allow permitted visitors to enjoy the Diamond Head-Makai quadrant that houses a burial mound that is thought to contain the iwi, or bones, of chiefs. Currently, only the two Ewa-side quadrants are open to the public.

The board moved the full proposal forward to public hearing with the understanding that the section regarding permits might be changed after the community weighs in.

It’s unlikely that the change would be in effect in time to impact the 118th anniversary of the overthrow on Jan. 17, 2011.

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