- Historic Sites
Long before it became a state, Hawaii enchanted Americans with a vision of tropical ease, languid music, and a steady throb of sensuality. That life disappeared on December 7, 1941, but vivid traces of it remain.
April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
Iwilei, as Maugham knew it, is gone, replaced by an unlovely complex of cargo storage sheds and docking equipment. As a matter of fact, a lot of Honolulu where real life goes on is a jumble of buildings—hula supply shops next to tattoo parlors, karate schools, dim sum parlors—all heaped together in an incoherent whole, picturesque to some viewers, tacky to others. The jumble is much as it was in 1916, when that disillusioned traveler Maugham described it: “Shacks stand cheek by jowl with stone mansions, dilapidated frame houses standing next door to smart stores with plate glass windows.” When it comes to city planning, there has never been enough space in Honolulu to separate the elite from the humble. Nevertheless, Honolulu has its share of distinguished architecture, most notably those buildings created during the 1920s and ’30s. This was the era of Charles W. Dickey, Hart Wood, Julia Morgan, and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Charles Dickey is credited with the popularization of the predominant style, California Spanish Colonial/Mission at its core, modified with Hawaiian elements: protective eaves to take advantage of trade winds, that most pleasant of Hawaiian-inspired architectural features the lanai , green-tiled roofs, and the double-pitched hipped roof that became known as the Dickey roof, although he didn’t actually invent it. Many buildings included a touch of the Orient, so fitting to Hawaii’s population mix. Some of the most striking ones in this mode are the Honolulu Academy of Arts (1927), 900 South Beretania Street, designed by Bertram Goodhue and this writer’s choice for the most beautiful building in Honolulu; the Alexander and Baldwin Building (1929), 822 Bishop Street, a unique blend of Asian and Western architecture designed by Charles Dickey and Hart Wood; the Richards Street YWCA (1927), 1040 Richards Street, the work of Julia Morgan, one of America’s foremost female architects and the designer of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, and the Honolulu Hale (1929), at the corner of South King and Punchbowl Streets, a Spanish Colonial Revival gem highlighted by Hawaiian motifs, designed by a team of architects including Charles Dickey and Hart Wood.
These proud old buildings led to the development of a modern-times territorial architectural style now in evidence all over the islands. Endless replayings of the nostalgia motif in twenty-first-century Hawaiian architecture draws the ire of some architects who see the entire island turning into some kind of territorial theme park, and indeed there is some reason to question the integrity of trying to re-create the honest but expensive buildings of the past with modern stucco poured over Styrofoam underpinnings.
Gradually, as one comes to know Honolulu, a sense of place for each district begins to emerge. Hawaiians take pride in their individual neighborhoods, each with a distinctive spirit and history. The Manoa district near the University of Hawaii, for example, delights visitors with its vintage cottages nestled in exuberant plantings, the dramatic green ridges of the Koolau mountains serving as a backdrop. The decorative elements of the cottages and sometimes the whole houses often came from mail-order catalogues of the twenties and thirties. One had only to choose a miniature Tudor, a little Mediterranean villa, or a French Norman cottage, and shortly an appropriate kit would arrive by ship. It is best, though, not to fall too much in love with these seemingly modest little charmers. Their price tags are likely to hover in the million-dollar range.
The true luxury homes of the past cluster in the Kahala/Diamond Head area. One of the most spectacular is the island paradise of the heiress Doris Duke, now open to all as Hawaii’s newest museum. Duke visited Hawaii on the last leg of her honeymoon in 1935 and was instantly attracted to its beauty. She purchased five acres near Diamond Head, built a retreat she called Shangri La, and over a period of nearly six decades filled it with one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the United States, some 3,500 objects: flower-strewn tiles, lacy marble windows, fragments of rooms purchased from Middle Eastern estates. Her most significant acquisition is an immense lusterware mihrab, a prayer niche, from a thirteenth-century Iranian tomb. The estate also has an incomparable view of the Pacific and of Diamond Head. Duke died in 1993 without heirs, leaving most of her estate to charity. Once the inevitable legal wranglings over the will were eventually settled, one of the bequests led to the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The foundation transformed the property into a public facility. Knowledgeable docents escort small groups through the treasures. When they speak of Duke, they veil some of the messier aspects of the life she led: her imperious personality, her bad taste in husbands, her sad final years when a flower child she took in proved less than innocent. The tours must be booked in advance, but anyone can clamber over the rocks to a lovely swimming area at the base of the estate and enjoy the same spectacular expanse of sea, turquoise shading to indigo, that Duke so loved. In Hawaii the beach-front belongs to the public, and not even Doris Duke could buy exclusive rights.