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The Greek Immigrant Who Built a Hotel on a Hawaii Volcano

Volcano hotel Hawaii
George Lycurgus. Credit: Public Domain

Greek businessman George Lycurgus left an indelible mark on the tourist industry in Honolulu, Hawaii and led Hawaii’s Volcano House Hotel into the modern era of hospitality.

George Lycurgus was born in Vasaras, Greece near Sparta in 1858. At nineteen, Lycurgus immigrated to America on the cargo deck of a steamship.

Lycurgus, imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit common in Greeks, developed his business prowess not long after arriving in America.

Along with his cousins, the young immigrant began the business of shipping fruit between California and Hawaii.

George Lycurgus’ journey to Hawaii

Lycurgus quickly befriended the sugar cane and steamship magnate Claus Spreckels, whose sugar factory was based in Hawaii, on his journeys. Little did he know that his friendship with Spreckels would lead him to the tropical paradise.

During a break from work one day, Lycurgus was invited to play a game of cards on one of Spreckels’ ships.

Unbeknownst to the young Greek businessman, the ship was en route to Hawaii. A passion for life in Hawaii grew from this surprising voyage, and Lycurgus soon left California and began running his business out of the beautiful island chain.

Hoping to transmit his love of the islands to the world, the young Greek decided to get into the hospitality business and began to open hotels.

The Iconic Sans Souci

Lycurgus’s first hospitality venture was the Sans Souci Hotel, which he opened in 1893.

The Sans Souci Hotel, whose name comes from a French phrase for “care free,” was a groundbreaking resort on the Waikiki Beach of Honolulu.

Sans Souci attracted noteworthy clientele, including author Robert Louis Stevenson, and was popular amongst Hawaiian royalty.

The Greek entrepreneur felt more comfortable spending time with the Hawaiian royalty than the American tourists due to his heritage, and they called him “The Duke of Sparta.”

When Americans attempted to overthrow the rulers of Hawaii and take the land as their own, Lycurgus stood defiant and supported the native Hawaiians, a move that caused him political difficulties later in his career.

The Volcano House Hotel

Volcano Hotel Hawaii
The Volcano House Hotel. Credit: Public Domain

Lycurgus’s success with Sans Souci enabled him to purchase the Volcano House Hotel, which was situated on the edge of the Kilaeua volcano.

The Greek businessman first visited the spectacular volcano years before in 1894. He was immediately taken by the site and began to mull over some potential business ideas.

George Lycurgus eventually bought the Volcano House Hotel in 1904, but the establishment had traded hands many times over in the years before Lycurgus took over.

Volcano Hotel Hawaii
Credit: Connie Peters

The first iteration of the hotel was established in 1840 and was only a single room built by the businessman Benjamin Pittman. In 1866, Pittman expanded the hotel to four rooms.

Visitors to the hotel grew wildly during Lycurgus’ ownership over the hotel, as the development of a nearby railroad brought more visitors to the area.

The Volcano House’s popularity steadily exploded under Lycurgus’s leadership until a sudden kitchen fire razed the hundred-plus room structure to the ground on February 11, 1940.

The Greek businessman tapped his connections with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House to try to get government support in rebuilding the Volcano House.

New observation sites were constructed with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and eventually, an entirely new hotel was built under the supervision of famed architect Charles W. Dickey.

Volcano Hotel Hawaii
Lycurgus seated by the edge of the volcano. Credit: Connie Peters

The Volcano House is the only hotel located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and works with the park to create a destination where tourists can safely connect with the grandeur of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano without harming themselves or the environment.

The hotel briefly closed in May of 2018 due to the eruption of the Kilauea volcano.

Famous authors such as Mark Twain and Jack London have visited the Volcano House hotel at different moments in its history to connect with the American landscape and fuel their writing.

George Lycurgus, a pioneer of the Hawaiian tourism industry, passed away in 1960 at the age of 101.

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