HONOLULU (KHON2) — The oldest building on the windward side was burned to the ground on Sunday, June 26, with nothing left but the chimney. It was devastating news for Paul Brennan of the Kailua Historical Society — he has been leading tours there for the past 40 years. This year, he was only able to do one.

“It’s not just another house,” Brennan said. “It’s a house with a long history. It’s a house with multiple kinds of people coming, engaging in social activities — there were elaborate parties that took place there.”

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The Boyd-Irwin property has a deep history with ties to Hawaiian royalty and the surrounding community. The house built by sugar baron William G. Irwin in 1893 was part of the Queen’s Retreat. In the 1880s, there were quite a number of visits from the royal family to Maunawili.

They would have come on the same road that the house was located on, but it was in 1893 that Irwin bought the property. His goal was primarily to get water for the Waimanalo sugar mill, so the Maunawili Ditch was built. He lived in the elaborate home until 1910, then C. Brewer bought it from him, using it as a retreat.

It also became from time to time a community dance hall, and the home was well known because it was a very elaborate estate. There were rock walls all around the Queen’s Retreat area, along with exotic trees. Later, when the Kaneohe Ranch bought the property, they were able to allow the Girl Scouts to use it for summer camps.

The historic Boyd-Irwin Estate, better known as The Queen’s Retreat, was burned to the ground on Sunday, June 26, 2022. Pictured is the property in 2012. (Courtesy: Wendy Roberts)

Brennan, who lives less than a half mile away from the property, was able to interview many of those families and has personally spent lots of time around the house.

“And when the Weinbergs bought it in 1999, I was concerned that there might be able to be something substantially different from the past,” said Brennan. “And there would be an emphasis on culture, and restoration, and education, and tours. Over these years, I’ve led many tours up there.”

The Honolulu Fire Department said the cause of the fire is undetermined. The damage estimate for the building is $1,137,000 with no value for the contents.

“I don’t think anyone was as disappointed as I was, when I heard that everything was now down to the ground in ash, except for the fireplace that still stands like a sentinel there,” said Brennan.

The 83-year-old tour guide couldn’t believe the historic site burned down. He was speaking in a church that Sunday morning and returned home to his phone ringing, his email inbox full.

“We who live in this area, think of ourselves as the Queen’s neighbors,” said Brennan. “We are fortunate because there was all of this historic activity taking place here, and we hope to be able to go in when we seek permission from the Weinberg Foundation and have a little grieving ceremony.”

Brennan added that a lot of his neighbors are interested to see what it looks like now. Though many of them don’t want to face that reality, they need to have closure.

“And we will have to talk about the future,” said Brennan. “Because now the ashes are lying on the ground. They have no future except our voices, except our memories. Except what we have been able to accumulate in terms of its very special history.”

Brennan hopes to see another structure there in the future, which could take a variety of possible shapes. He mentions Kailua has no museum, so this could be an opportunity to build one there. For the Kailua Historical Society, it might be able to become a headquarters for their archive collection or at least a center where the public could come and get reference materials.

“I can think of a building which would also serve as a place of coordination and organization of tours,” he said. “There is so much of interest on the ground. The footprint is still there. And it’s the Hawaiian presence that has most attracted my attention.”

“It’s one thing to look back to 1870 and talk about the royal family coming that’s interesting in itself,” Brennan continued. “It’s interesting that a very wealthy haole might be able to buy the ranch and build his home and have a classical Hawaiian country estate. But to me, the much more interesting focus could be on what the Hawaiians were doing there.”

Brennan said Kailua has had this remarkable focus of hospitality in its history period. Why did Queen Lili’uokalani feel inspired by the area? What was it that attracted her and kept her coming back again and again? Why were those lavish parties there?

“And that’s a story,” said Brennan. “It’s a story about the interest of the royal family. It’s a story about what kinds of gifts the country folk in Kailua might be able to offer. But it has so many opportunities for being able to share in an ongoing way.”

Over four decades, Brennan has led many groups there, and everyone seems to find it fascinating. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he had to restrict his tours. Normally during the summer, he would get half a dozen requests to lead young people up there. And this year, he only got to do one.

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But for Brennan, even with the structure gone, this is not the end.

“Because the burning of that house, whatever the cause might have been, is not going to stop the telling of the story,” he said.