Denby Fawcett: This Historic House 'Didn't Have To Burn Down' - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

An abandoned home on the property where King David Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani once were regular visitors has been left a pile of rubble with only the brick chimney still standing after an early morning fire on Sunday.

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The Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate is known by many as the Queen’s Retreat. It was the oldest intact country estate associated with Hawaiian alii on Oahu.

This is the land that inspired Hawaii’s last queen to write her famous composition “Aloha Oe.” In 1878, after a visit to an earlier built house on the property owned by her friends — Major Edward Harbottle Boyd and his wife Maria — the queen, then Princess Liliuokalani, penned what would become one of Hawaii’s most memorable songs.

“This is so sad, it is such a shame. It didn’t have to burn down. The fire could have been prevented if there had been better vigilance to stop the questionable activities going on in there for years,” said Paul Brennan, the president of the Kailua Historical Society.

Over the years, community groups and neighbors in Maunawili have tried unsuccessfully to urge a series of different owners of the estate and surrounding lands to take better care of the property as they watched it seriously deteriorate and become inhabited by homeless people.

When checking up on the residence during his weekly visits, Brennan says he has found holes in its old growth pine floors from the fires squatters started inside the house as well as trash and graffiti.

Brennan is a steadfast advocate for the care and preservation of the house and its gardens, which he says are priceless visual reminders of Hawaii’s past.

He says he, neighbors, Windward community groups and nonprofits have asked the property owner, HRT Realty LLC, for years for permission to help secure the house from trespassers.

HRT Realty is the real estate arm of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

In a written statement, the Weinberg Foundation said it was thankful no one was injured in the fire and it is grateful to the Honolulu Fire Department for its quick response and investigation.

In answer to why it let the house fall into disrepair, the foundation said, “The house was abandoned and deteriorated prior to the foundation’s acquisition of the land several decades ago.”

In 2005, Historic Hawaii Foundation  — concerned about the company’s lax oversight of the house declared the property “endangered.”

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
The Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate, also known as the Queen’s Retreat, was covered by graffiti after it was abandoned. Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019

Kiersten Faulkner, Historic Hawaii’s executive director, said the destruction of the house by fire is “a horrific loss.”

“It happened because there was a lack of responsibility, a lack of respect and care for this special place. It is irreplaceable. The estate is where Liliuokalani was inspired to write one of the most beloved compositions in the Hawaii Islands,” Faulkner said in an interview.

Falkner said the fire is especially disheartening because so many community groups and individuals in the Maunawili neighborhood have offered to help HRT Realty preserve the property.

“It has come to nothing. All their requests to pitch in over the years have been rebuffed by the company,” she said.

The Honolulu Fire Department says the fire was reported at 2:50 a.m. Sunday and extinguished soon after.

But fire crews had to return at 11:18 a.m. to put out a fire still smoldering in an albizia tree on the grounds they were concerned would drop on the road and block cars.

HFD says the cause of the fire remains undetermined. “There is very little to work with because the structure burned to the ground,” said HFD’s on-duty public information officer Ricardo Yost.

Yost said the fire department has sent units to the property before to extinguish other fires, and neighbors have told firefighters about vandals and homeless campers inhabiting the house.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
Smoldering rubble is all that’s left after a fire destroyed the house on the Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate, also known as the Queen’s Retreat. Courtesy: Barbara Pope/2022

In 1999, HRT Realty purchased the 1,084 acre parcel in Maunawili that included the house that burned and other nearby historic structures.

Since then, the company has submitted four different permits to the city Department of Planning and Permitting for permission to subdivide and sell the Maunawili land. All of the permits have expired.

The company is currently in negotiations with the Trust for Public Land, which is working with a community group called the Hui Maunawili-Kawainui in hopes of acquiring the entire 1,084 acre parcel to keep it in conservation.

“It is not a secret that the Trust for Public Land is trying to make a deal to buy the land to preserve it,” said executive director Lea Hong.

The area has a rich past that covers many different periods in the development of Windward Oahu.

The Boyd family purchased the Maunawili property in 1869. Major Boyd was a merchant who held several positions in the Hawaiian Kingdom including employment on the staff of Liliuokalani’s husband, John Owen Dominis.

Boyd used the land as a cattle ranch and rural retreat where the family’s parties and luaus were often attended by Liliuokalani and King David Kalakaua.

In 1893, the Boyds sold their then 1,200 acre Maunawili Ranch to the sugar baron William G. Irwin and his wife Fannie who built the New England-Victorian style house that burned down Sunday.

C. Brewer Co. bought the property from Irwin in 1910 and used the house as a country retreat and a community dance hall. The land and house was sold to the Harold Castle family’s Kaneohe Ranch in 1940.

During World War II, the Castle family leased Irwin’s former house and surrounding property to the Army for jungle warfare training and a communications center to reach most military installations on the Windward side.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
A watercolor of the house in its heyday by Carter Blank, painted in 1991. Courtesy: Drudi Johnston

In 1985, the Maunawili land played a role in Hawaii’s Japanese golf course building boom when Kaneohe ranch sold it to Yasuo Yasuda, a Korean citizen living in Japan. Yasuda’s company, Y.Y. Valley, created what became Luana Hills Golf and Country Club on the property.

Maunawili preservationist Brennan said he took Yasuda on a tour to explain the value of the Queen’s Retreat, but he said the investor looked bored and uninterested in the history of the house.

“All he cared about was golf,” Brennan said.

When Y.Y. Valley failed, it went into receivership to be sold later to its current owner Weinberg.

Now after the fire, Maunawili residents like Brennan say they are more intent than ever to keep working to restore the valley to what it was centuries before: a favorite place of Hawaiian royalty featuring rich agricultural land that fed much of Oahu.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Yet another example of how "things" in Hawaii are neglected… I hear "much hollow rhetoric" from politicians - local organizations - etc… about taking care of the land and environment and then I turn another corner - see an abandoned property/ car - blue tarp cities… rubbish . rubbish . rubbish everywhere. Everyday I come back from run with a bag of rubbish I pick up along the way. I am a retired Marine, but I fear going into any public restroom in the islands because they are so - well -just gross… Too bad for this property, my prediction - more of the same.

pcbroda · 1 year ago

The sad part is that squatters and homeless destroyed the house, period. Like our parks and other private properties, homeless and disrespecting citizens, who are locals regularly destroy property. It's not so much that the landowner failed to maintain the house, as it was already in disrepair, but that people are so disrespectful to property in general. If you look at any beach park bathroom, any city park facility, private warehouse, or building the common theme is that if it sits without constant patrol or security someone will deface, take advantage of, or destroy it. That's the sad thing about local society today. What's not mine is mine to destroy or squat on as if it where. You don't see this in New Zealand, Australia, or most parts of the world. The populous appreciates and takes care of public buildings, beaches aren't even littered and even graffiti is hard to come by.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

Interesting to learn about this historic home and so sad about its loss.

rbghawaii · 1 year ago

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