The Volcano House Story
Restoring History to Hawai‘i’s Oldest – and Newest – Hotel
Hawaii National Park, Hawai‘i – The beloved Volcano House will fully reopen on the rim of Kīlauea caldera in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park next month, following a multi-million dollar upgrade and completing yet another chapter in the epic history of this iconic hotel.
Soon, guests will stroll through the lobby, where polished concrete floors of deep jade have been restored to their 1940s luster, and into the Grand Lounge. Flames from the original lava rock fireplace will warm the lobby and cast flickering light upon the imposing bronze of volcano goddess Pele, sculpted by Honolulu artist Marguerite Blassingame. A few more steps will reveal an expansive, comfortably appointed sitting room with spectacular views of Kīlauea and fuming Halema‘uma‘u Crater beyond large picture glass windows.
While temporary shelters on Kīlauea predate the 1824 grass hut built by Chiefess Kapi‘olani and her entourage, it was in 1846 that Hilo resident Benjamin Pitman, Sr. built a grass house, and christened it “Volcano House.” The name stuck, and the first substantial wooden structure to welcome guests at Kīlauea was built in 1877. (Eventually, this one-story building was relocated, repurposed, and currently houses the Volcano Art Center). Famed writers Mark Twain, Isabella Bird and Robert Louis Stevenson were among guests in the 1877 building, as were King David Kalākaua, and French microbiologist, Louis Pasteur.
In 1895, Greek-born George “Uncle George” Lycurgus acquired the Volcano House, and several structural evolutions ensued, including the construction of an ornate, two-story Victorian-inspired building that served many distinguished guests. Visitors included President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 (the first U.S. president to visit Hawai‘i), Amelia Earheart, and Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani.
In 1940, a fire from an oil burner destroyed the Victorian-style Volcano House. No lives were lost, but the entire hotel was a complete loss. Undaunted, Uncle George negotiated the construction of a new hotel with the park some 200 yards from its former site. In late 1941, the new Volcano House, designed by Maui-born architect Charles W. Dickey, was unveiled with great fanfare on the crater rim – and it is unveiled again in 2013 in the historic character of the 1940s. Uncle George’s name, flair for hospitality, and affinity towards volcano goddess Pele, will continue to define the character of Volcano House.
The 33-room hotel is owned by the National Park Service, and is managed under contract by Hawai‘i Volcanoes Lodge Company, LLC, who also manage Nāmakanipaio Campground and 10 A-frame cabins. While the views from Volcano House of the active volcano may be distracting, the careful observer will note the restoration of canec ceilings in the comfortable guest rooms, appointed with historic crown moldings. Prints by local artist Marian Berger of native birds in the Audubon style of the era adorn the walls. Original tiled hearths in three rooms were upgraded with electrical fireplaces.
Outside, two new decks overlook Kīlauea caldera. Indoors, guests can have a seat at the lovingly restored original koa wood bar in Uncle George’s Lounge, where another bronze sculpture depicting Pele’s vengeance graces a historic fireplace.
If Uncle George were alive today, perhaps he’d marvel over the coincidental return of Pele to her home at Halema‘uma‘u Crater, which began to erupt again in 2008, and to the return of guests to historic Volcano House.