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What is it Like Living 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?


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Sharon Au has kept all the original exterior elements of her historic Manoa residence, although keeping it all clean and functional has taken a fair amount of money, time and effort.

Photos: Olivier Koning



Lives in: The Alex G. And Jessie T. Horn Residence
Address: 2320 Sonoma St.
Architect: Alvin Shadinger
Style: Craftsman bungalow
Built: 1929


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.


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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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