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The Volcano House Story – Restoring History to Hawai‘i’s Oldest – and Newest – Hotel

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.

NPS Photo by Jay Robinson

NPS Photo by Jay Robinson

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.

The Volcano House in 1947, a historic landmark overlooking Kīlauea Crater, east side. NPS Photo

The Volcano House in 1947, a historic landmark overlooking Kīlauea Crater, east side. NPS Photo

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.

Historic photo taken February 1966. NPS Photo/Wm Robenstein.

Historic photo taken February 1966. NPS Photo/Wm Robenstein.

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.

Volcano House and Cabins to Open “Softly” Saturday

The National Park Service’s Director of the Pacific West Region, Christine Lehnertz, today signed the 15-year concession contract between Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Hawai‘i Volcanoes Lodge Company, LLC.

NPS Photo by Jay Robinson

Visitors will be able to stay in the Park’s A-frame cabins and purchase a limited selection of food, drink and retail items from the Volcano House beginning Sat., Aug. 18. The Volcano House will open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

All 10 A-frame cabins at Nāmakanipaio Campground will open gradually, and reservations can be made by calling (808) 756-9625. Cabins start at $55 per night.

“The company not only fulfilled the qualifications required by the National Park Service, they exceeded expectations,” said Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando. “We are delighted to have Hawai‘i Volcanoes Lodge Company, LLC as our newest Park partner, and look forward to elevating the Volcano House, Nāmakanipaio Campground, dining experiences and retail opportunities to the next level.”

Hawai‘i Volcanoes Lodge Company, LLC will complete renovations to the cabins and to the historic 32-room hotel, opening in phases over the next 12 months. Improvements to the eight-room annex are scheduled for the first phase, and rooms could open as early as January 2013. The entire renovation project is expected to cost the company between $2.5 million and $3 million. The National Park Service has invested $4 million in seismic and fire upgrades.

According to General Manager George Mangino, the company will hire 50 employees for the hotel, which overlooks Kīlauea caldera and erupting Halema‘uma‘u. First opened in 1846, Volcano House has a storied history with many notable guests in its registry, including Mark Twain, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Isabella Bird.

Renovation plans for the Volcano House include a strong commitment to sharing Native Hawaiian culture through interpretive experiences including cultural demonstrations, artwork, and handicrafts. Sustainable Hawai‘i Island ingredients will be featured in the restaurant and other food and beverage outlets.