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by N.F. Karlins
Plenty of people have discovered, or thought they discovered, the inspiration for Shangri La, that mythic, isolated land of eternal youth and peace in James Hilton’s 1933 novel of the same name. Shangri La has turned up in China, Tibet and even Pakistan.

But the Shangri La I visited in Hawai’i is better than any of these. It’s filled with palm trees, the sound of waves, salt air, and lots of art -- Islamic art to be precise.

This Shangri La is in Honolulu, a gift to art lovers from the millionaire philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993). You can visit her stunning modern home brimming with Islamic art from many countries by making an appointment for one of the limited number of tours run by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where selected Islamic items are on display along with a video about Duke and the creation of Shangri La.

The most modest of her several residences, Shangri La was conjured by Doris Duke from the ground up, and she worked on it for over 50 years.

Duke came to Honolulu in 1935 at the age of 22. Oahu was the last stop on a honeymoon trip, which had already lasted seven months. Her first husband and she were to stay for a few weeks. The Hawai’ians, unlike many others, allowed this famous person to have her privacy, and they admired her for her skills in water sports. A “haole” (white or non-Hawai’ian) woman who could swim and surf well was unusual. She loved the land and the people, stayed four months, and in 1936 bought almost five acres with a majestic view of Diamond Head, an extinct volcano down the coast.

Doris Duke’s life of extreme privilege would have exposed her to Tiffany-style Moorish homes in New York and elsewhere. She, like her father James. B. Duke, founder of American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, liked to see art and collect it. She married James Cromwell in 1935 and had gone around the world, visiting China, Egypt, Indonesia, and India among other places before arriving in Honolulu.

Doris Duke was so taken with the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, that she had ordered a bedroom and bath ensemble in marble in a similar style from a British firm in India for her new home, which was to be in Florida. Deciding to establish a home on Oahu rather than in Florida, the ensemble eventually was installed in Shangri La, where it was joined by Islamic art from other countries.

Dukes’s house was constructed during 1937-38 for about $1.4 million, the most expensive home on the islands at the time. Although Duke’s marriage didn’t last (she separated from Cromwell in 1940), Doris Duke returned to Shangri La for part of every year until the end of her life, taking comfort in her personal retreat with close Hawai’ian friends with whom she played Hawai’ian music, swam, surfed, sailed and picnicked. She added new art and changed the installation of artwork often.

Although Shangri La is now surrounded by expensive homes in the Kahala area of Honolulu, even today when you arrive at the building’s unprepossessing entrance, you feel transported into a remote, simpler space.

Large trees offer shade above a spare entrance that hardly prepares visitors for the gorgeous colors and riotous patterns of the Islamic art just inside the doorway.

The foyer has a mix of Islamic art. On either side of the interior doorway are hundreds of Turkish Iznik painted tiles from the Ottoman period (17th-19th centuries). Not everything is antique. A dramatic carved wood, painted and gilded ceiling was made in Morocco especially for the space in the 1930s. Duke knew what she wanted and had architectural settings made for the house frequently, so that her home formed a whole and was livable from the start.

Down a stairway, one enters an enclosed courtyard around which the main rooms of the house are arranged. The collection is especially rich in ceramics, and the walls of the courtyard are lined with mainly Iranian tilework. The largest of the pieces is actually a copy of one of a pair of huge Isfahan tileworks that Duke saw on a trip to Iran and other Middle East destinations in 1938. She had it made in Iran and eventually installed it in Shangri La. The plash of the fountain makes the entire space a relaxing area that invites serious looking.

The living room combines contemporary fabrics on low couches with a carved marble fireplace from 13th century Spain. Hundreds of painted and glazed lusterware tiles from 16th century Spain form a kind of dado along the fireplace wall. Iranian pots, an Egyptian prayer book stand, and traditional fabric wall hangings add to the airy beauty of the room, which is crowned with another elaborate wooden ceiling, made-to-order in Morocco.

Visible through panoramic glass windows on one side is an inviting swimming pool and beyond that is the Playhouse, guest quarters built in the style of an Iranian royal pavilion with many Iranian Qajar works, that is not open to the public at present. The glass windows, walls really, allow spectacular views of the Playhouse and of the coastline with Diamond Head in the distance.

What stunned me was that Duke had the Otis Elevator Company build the glass windows, so that at the push of a button they slide into the floor, allowing direct access to the lawn and pool.

The completely open space between inside and outside is perfect for enjoying the warm Hawai’ian climate. No wonder Doris Duke loved this house.

The open salt air, however, is not great for works of art or furnishings, so before Shangri La first opened to the public in 2002, a lot of conservation and restoration work had to be done. That work is ongoing, and more rooms will be open for touring in time.

At the moment, you can see the most important work in the collection in a hallway, framed by doors in the living room, a monumental mihrab, or prayer niche, of painted and glazed ceramic made in Kashan, Iran. It is rare because of its size and because it is signed by a known potter and dated to 1265 AD. Framed the way it is, it glistens in the light, but it is not aligned to Mecca. Like all the objects in Shangri La, it was chosen and installed for its aesthetic merit, not its religious or social connotations.

The dining room, which only holds a table for about eight, was originally done in Hawai’ian motifs, complete with fish tanks and lots of shells. But as the plans for leaving the house to the public developed, Duke completely redid the room. She swathed the room in striped fabric from India, like an imperial nomadic tent. The fabric, having been duplicated in India, is now as vivid as ever in blue and deep pink. A stepped series of tile panels commissioned from Iran graces one wall, while another is glass and faces the Pacific Ocean. What views when dining there!

A gigantic crystal chandelier by Baccarat, made for export to the Indian market, illuminates the room. Two standing lamps, also by Baccarat, plus small silver pieces from several countries further brighten the space.

Two other adjoining rooms, stuffed with Syrian woodwork and many kinds of ceramics and a small-scale Mughal-like garden with central fountain and geometric planters rounded out my tour of this unique property.

Duke’s bedroom and bath, the Playhouse, and rooms upstairs plus the modern service wing will be added in the future tours as work progresses. I recommend making a reservation for a tour several months in advance if you plan on a trip to Honolulu.

The good news is that, even if you can’t fly to Oahu anytime soon, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art has one of the best web-site virtual tours I’ve ever seen that will permit you to see all of Shangri La right now at Aloha!

N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.