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Monday
Jan112010

Urban Legends - King Kamehameha and the Capitol

Architect of the CapitolRecently, I managed to squeeze a whole weeks of posts on urban legends of Washington, DC and, to be frank, we have not even started to scratch the surface of un-truths, partial truths, and mis-truths available to an enterprising tour guide. So let's continue this thread a bit and delve into some of the stories of one building alone: the U.S. Capitol. Five days is hardly enough to hit them all, but we'll skim over a few of my favorites.

Sadly for those of us who delight in the outrageous, the new Capitol Visitor Center and it's associated standardization of your Capitol tour has resulted in the demise of many tall tales told by delightfully young Hill staffers and interns. Nowadays, tours are conducted almost entirely by members of the Capitol Guide Service who are properly trained for the task, if perhaps with a little less of that wild-eyed flair I so enjoyed in the past. So if you want a historically accurate, well scripted, and thoughtful examination of the Capitol, you're in luck. But if you long for the days of yore, with a Capitol tour the wild west of guiding, and interns wielding stories like six shooters with little regard as to what they hit, then let's take a path down the urban legends of the Capitol Building.

We'll start with the story of King Kamehameha I, a recent addition to the Capitol Visitors Center, but a long-time favorite of the interns. The good King now welcomes us as we enterEmancipation Hall, just to the right as we descend the stairs. His right arm reaches out to us in a gesture of aloha, the spirit of friendly greeting. King Kamehameha is one of 19 state statues in the Capitol Visitors Center, which we can see without getting timed tickets or signing up for a tour. As Lauren discussed earlier, every state has the honor of selecting two of its citizens to grace the halls of Congress, and Hawaii has chosen King Kamehameha the First. The good King, of course, predates the state of Hawaii, and is remembered for unifying the islands and forming the Kingdom of Hawaii.

King Kamehameha is the largest in the collection, weighing in at around 15,000 pounds. While his weight did pose structural issues in his previous home at National Statuary Hall, our intern guides would never use such a pedantic reason explain the King's relatively obscure spot in the corner. No, it had to be because King Kamehameha was under-dressed in his native garb, requiring him to be hidden. Some versions even had the King entirely naked, with the gilded loincloth added later for the sake ofsomeone's sense of propriety. And a final, lesser-heard story was that an intern was once caught red handed telling the naked King story by Senator (fill in the blank) and dressed down for his presumption. Actually, the last one may very well be true, but I haven't documented it.

But, boringly enough, King Kamehameha's position in the corner was due to the immense weight of the sculpture, and there is no record of anyone incurring the wrath of the King (to say nothing of the Hawaii congressional delegation) by complaining of his attire. If you don't believe me, you're welcome to inspect the original casting of the statue, standing proudly near his birthplace on the island of Hawaii (after a brief sojourn underwater in a shipwreck off the Falklands). While slightly different, this 1878 version clearly has the same loincloth.

And finally, while I might note that spelling out Kamehameha repeatedly was a chore, I shouldn't complain. After all, we could be going by his full name:Kalani Pai ʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea. If you happen to be in DC on June 11th, or Kamehameha Day, swing by the Visitors Center where you will see the king adorned in a lei, watching the hula dancer who perform for him.

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Reader Comments (1)

Now if you misspelled the King K's full name, who would know?

January 10, 2010 | Registered CommenterLauren S. Kahn

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