What is it like to live in a historic Hawaii home?
Homes on the Historic Register are beautiful relics of an older Hawaii, but what are they like to actually live in?
Old homes might be brimming with character, but they also might have creaky floors and leaky ceilings, or maybe drafty windows and high utility costs. Maintaining a historic home in keeping with its original intent can be costly—and tax credits and incentives only go so far to offset the expense of hiring skilled craftsmen and replacing decades-old elements.
But for many, the appeal of living in a vintage home outweighs any of the disadvantages owners might face—there are more than 250 designated historical residences on Oahu alone. We talked to two historic-home owners who like having their houses listed on the state register, and one who hasn’t yet been convinced to take the plunge.
Lives in: The Ida MacDonald Residence
Address: 2243 Mohala Way, Manoa
Architect: Lewers & Cooke
Style: Craftsman bungalow with Dutch Colonial elements
Linda LeGrande, a fiscal education secretary for Punahou School, has lived in her historic Manoa home for 35 years.
“It needed love and attention and I just enjoy the aesthetics of an older home,” LeGrande explains. The house had been a rental property for 40 years, with all the wear and tear that entails, but LeGrande’s husband at the time was a restoration contractor, so the couple felt up to the task—especially for this three-bedroom home on Mohala Way. “I’d always wanted to live in a house on a hill,” LeGrande says.
When her home was built, in 1926, Manoa wasn’t as crowded, and owners still had a choice of location. Looking out at the valley from her deck, she says, “It’s like a little respite here.”
For 18 years, LeGrande has served on the board of Malama Manoa, a two-decade-old community organization founded to preserve the architecture and older homes in Manoa, while also protecting the valley’s environment, history and sense of community. “It all works with why I live in this house,” LeGrande says. “It’s sort of a mission of mine to see that we keep many of these houses.”
LeGrande’s home—a Craftsman bungalow—was originally owned by Ida MacDonald, a teacher from Nova Scotia. “It was a very modest home for a school teacher,” she says, pointing out that the shingle-style home’s rooms aren’t very large and the ceilings aren’t particularly high. It belies the common perception of historic homes as grand estates. LeGrande points out that as many as half of the homes on the register, including her own, are valued at less than $1 million.
The home’s exterior is full of character, with features such as complicated patterns, a chimney, dormers and gables. Even before the home was placed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places, LeGrande kept the exterior intact to preserve a sense of the home and the original intent for which it was built. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she says.
Inside, the kitchen has been redone, but that’s the only major change to the structure, LeGrande says. In fact, the kitchen still has a vintage gas stove.
Inside and out, LeGrande’s home is an exercise in reducing, reusing and recycling. “It’s a challenge to not get anything too contemporary,” she says, pointing to her computer as an exception. Otherwise, the art, fixtures and even collectibles are in keeping with the home’s era.
The result is a charming home with a warm, welcoming kitchen and dining area, perfect for entertaining. “I love having my girlfriends over. We just sit and kibitz for hours,” LeGrande says.
She’s salvaged bricks from an old bus station for the garden. She’s made stairs out of old curbs—there’s even some red paint from a no-parking zone. Brackets from another old home in Manoa have been turned into a wine rack. Cabinets and door faces were once in a school in Nuuanu. Even the glass in the kitchen cabinets was salvaged.
“I’m a real scavenger,” LeGrande says. “My life is a treasure hunt.”
Lives in: The Alex G. And Jessie T. Horn Residence
Address: 2320 Sonoma St.
Architect: Alvin Shadinger
Style: Craftsman bungalow
Sharon Au, a realtor with 28 years of experience, often comes across historic homes. But when she saw this house at 2320 Sonoma St., in Manoa, with its spacious veranda and spectacular view, she knew right away she was in love.
She bought the three-bedroom, two-bath Craftsman bungalow in 2004 for $1.2 million, as is. The kitchen ceiling was leaking and everything was in disrepair. “It was a wreck,” Au says.
On the plus side, the original windows were in place, and doors and hinges were intact. Au opened up the kitchen, retrofitting and trimming it to match the original style. She hired contractors, master carpenters and architects who were savvy enough about historic and vintage homes to maintain the character, right down to reassembling original features without the use of electric tools.
Even her furnishings match the home’s age. She picked up pieces like the master bed and an armoire when the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was being restored.
It wasn’t cheap—Au poured nearly half the sales price into renovations. “It’s a money pit because you’re retrofitting the house to work in today’s world. It costs more to restore a home than to tear it down and build a new one,” she says.
But Au, who has restored some 20 homes in her lifetime, knew what she was getting into.
“That’s my weakness and my passion,” she says. She’s drawn in by historic homes’ character, workmanship and building materials. In addition to her home in Manoa, she’s restoring a vintage home in Hilo.
Not everyone feels the same, she says. Many people who buy old homes in Manoa prefer to tear them down and build something new. “They don’t realize they could be saving them for the next generation,” she says.
In the 1980s, home buyers were leery of houses on the register because they worried they couldn’t make changes or renovations.
That’s not the case, says Au, who has installed photovoltaic panels on her own home, as well as all-new electric and plumbing, and wiring for cable and Internet. She’s even refaced her fireplace with a lava-rock facade.
The main requirement is that historic-home owners keep the exterior intact, with original siding and windows.
Additional permits are only needed for improvements that call for a building permit, such as adding a swimming pool or even an extra wing. That’s OK, “as long as it’s in keeping with the style of the home,” Au says. When she decided to install solar panels, she found the extra permitting didn’t take too much time.
There’s also a misconception that homes on the historic register are open to the public. The City and County only requires that the plaque be readable from the street and the house remain visible to passersby.
Whether or not to open the home further to visitors is up to the owner. Au has volunteered her home for inclusion on the Malama Manoa historic walking tour, but that was a choice, not a requirement.
Beadie Kanahele Dawson’s Nuuanu home is definitely significant, but she’s still on the fence about formally submitting it to the Hawaii Register of Historic Places.
Photos: Olivier Koning
BEADIE KANAHELE DAWSON
Lives in: Polihiwahiwa
Address: 3966 Nuuanu Pali Drive
Architect: Hart Wood
Beadie Kanahele Dawson bought her Nuuanu home almost 50 years ago and raised all her children there. “It truly is a family home,” she says.
Polihiwahiwa (nestling in the bosom of the hills) is a fun, five-bedroom Mediterranean-style home designed by architect Hart Wood, with help on some of the interior design from Vladimir Ossipoff. One of Dawson’s favorite features is a private chapel—the only one on Oahu to have been blessed by the Episcopal Church—but she also loves the portals and vistas that stretch mauka to makai.
Although she frequently lends out her home for charity events, Dawson has yet to begin the process of getting her home listed on the state’s historic register. “Clearly it qualifies,” she says. “It’s designed by a very well-known architect and it’s built for this valley.”
Her reluctance is due to the extra permitting that would be required when she wanted to make changes—she’s redone the kitchen three or four times—but she’s beginning to reconsider because the tax credits could help her with the cost of upkeep. “I probably will put it on the register. The taxes are brutal,” she says. So are improvements. “Everything has to be custom made to fit,” she says.
Regardless of its official status on the register, Dawson believes in preserving the original elements for the next generation, as much as possible. “I look at myself as the steward of this home, not the owner,” she says. “It would be a travesty to lose it.”
Got a home that you think might qualify for historic status? Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Q. How can a residence qualify for the Hawaii Register of Historic Places?
A. Homes must be at least 50 years old and need to possess historic significance and integrity, such as being associated with an important event or people who were significant in the past. The homes might also represent a specific period, method of construction or work of a master.
Q. What are the financial incentives for listing a home on the register?
A. Each of Hawaii’s four county governments offer some tax relief to help historic home owners preserve their properties, generally in the form of a real property tax exemption for certain portions of the residence. A typical homeowner could save around $3,600.
Q. Are there requirements for remaining on the register?
A. Homes should be maintained in a way that requires little change to the defining characteristics of the building, its site and environment. Any improvements or alterations must be reviewed by the state Historic Preservation Department before construction begins. If a homeowner takes a property tax exemption, they must also make sure the public is able to view the home from the street.
Q. How can you apply?
A. You can nominate homes for the register through the State Historic Preservation Division. Find out more on the website, historichawaii.org, or by calling 523-2900.