9 Greatest Honolulu Homes
Stunning, historic, extraordinary. HONOLULU Magazine asked a diverse group to help us choose the greatest houses on O‘ahu. Join us as we look inside nine notable head-turning homes.
Defining great houses can be a daunting task.
We researched award-winning houses, asked designers, architects, historic preservationists, folks from the arts, community influencers and more to help us pull together an assortment that mixes history, environmental awareness and a sense of Honolulu home design.
The environment, weather patterns, light: They’re all factors in the makeup of an exceptional house, says distinguished architect John Hara. “We live in a very special place and it doesn’t get very cold here and it doesn’t get very hot here either. The quality of light here is totally different,” Hara says. “These things, in a good house, I think always should be considered.”
Hara, 78, still works at his family firm’s office in McCully, along with his daughters, who are making their own marks in architecture and design. Several of our experts praised Hara’s body of work as exemplifying great architecture.
Hara says that architects now have different challenges than in decades past. He notes that the Liljestrand house on Tantalus, one of the nine on our list, is “a remarkable house relative to where it’s situated, at the top of the mountain. In terms of the actual site, it’s amazing.”
— Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation
Today, because of the conditions of available house sites, “you just have to design differently,” Hara says. “Now you have neighbors and you have to deal with that.”
Kiersten Faulkner has been executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation for a dozen years. She sees definite connections between the great houses. “The attention to detail and the sense that it is all of a piece—it’s not a kind of hodgepodge or Frankenhouse,” she says.
Hara sighs over the tendency of some of today’s homebuilders to pull design inspiration from the social media trend of the moment. Clients say, “This is what I Googled,” and sometimes ask for a little of this and a little of that, he says, so “you end up with pieces of Los Angeles, pieces of Las Vegas,” rather than a house designed as a whole for its place.
We pulled together houses with outstanding aesthetic appeal, a cohesive sense of place and features that set them apart from their neighbors. After weeks of research, we found ourselves saying: “I know it when I see it.” Of course, that phrase most famously came from a former U.S. Supreme Court justice who was ruling on a pornography case. Like Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, we resisted a point-by-point checklist while avoiding selections that seemed more real-estate porn than memorable home.
The result is a list of nine houses in seven neighborhoods, built over a span of 125 years. “The designs or the style are all very different but they all have an internal cohesion so the sense of style and craftsmanship and the quality of the materials are very high,” Faulkner says.
All the houses were built as homes, even those that have since evolved to more public uses. For example, Shangri La, once the Black Point home of philanthropist, global traveler and heiress Doris Duke, is now a museum and learning center. And La Pietra, once the home of the prominent Dillingham family, has been transformed into Hawai‘i School for Girls, educating students in grades six to 12. All but one of the homes is on the state historic register.
Our list of homes includes some that can be visited on tours and some available only with permission. We invite you to check them out here and to respect the homes featured. (Some owners opted out of our list because of a potential loss of privacy.)
While Faulkner was more familiar with the historic homes, she saw a thread running through all those that made our list: “There’s a sense of family, a sense of safety, a sense of this-is-where-we-come-home-to. They aren’t just showpieces, or places that are for architectural magazines. These are places for people.”
- Built: 1936–38
- Bedrooms: Five—three in the main house, two in the Playhouse
- Fun fact: While the property features a rare collection of ancient to modern art throughout, it also includes glass walls in the living room that retract into the basement.
Built as heiress Doris Duke’s waterfront Black Point home, the property remains a lavish trove of the art she admired and collected from around the world. Philanthropist, traveler, art collector, Duke was one of the best-known women of her time. But her enormous wealth brought her headaches as well. Upon her father’s death when she was 12, she inherited the bulk of his fortune as well as the nickname “The Richest Little Girl in the World.” Before he died, her father advised her to “trust no one,” and two marriages, several houses and complicated relationships with staff seemed to bear that out. However, Duke’s passion for art endured and now her Hawai‘i home is a museum, with tours dedicated to learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, educational and online initiatives, public tours and programs.
Konrad Ng has served as the center’s executive director for two years and says he realizes “the extraordinary opportunities we had in the collection [and] in the architecture of Shangri La to tell a range of very powerful stories” of the people and cultures represented. Opening after 9/11 helped shaped the educational and cultural programs. “The hope is we can teach, we can share, we can learn, we can inspire and we can also challenge,” he says.
Duke and her first husband, James Cromwell, were deeply involved in the design and construction of the 4.9-acre property and its buildings: a 14,000-square-foot main house, the Playhouse and a pool (which is being renovated this year).
The tropical landscaping of the oceanfront property, the courtyards, water features, terraces and gardens convey an indoor-outdoor sense throughout. The two architects were Marion Sims Wyeth and supervising architect H. Drewry Baker but Duke herself wrote in 1947 that her home wasn’t the product “of any one person, but of a number of architects and decorators from all over the world, finally put together by me.”
Duke collected more than 2,500 pieces of Islamic art over 60 decades—from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria—and featured tilework, tapestries, carvings, marble and much more in her Black Point home. Among the most rare is a 13th-century mihrab, or prayer niche, from Iran.
While the buildings once functioned only as a glamorous home, now the rooms also serve as galleries. In 2014, the museum opened Duke’s former bedroom, “not as a bedroom but as a bed and bath suite that told the story of South Asia, of India and the Mughal empires,” Ng says.
“There was a powder room—women’s sitting area before a restroom—that had been off the tour. We’ve turned it into a manuscript room where we show folios and other pages from our terrific collection of Persian manuscripts,” Ng says.
Some exhibits are temporary, such as one displaying a woman’s clog as a way to discuss the role of women in the Ottoman Empire.
“Part of the challenge of Shangri La is less about restoration, but activating it and opening up new spaces to tell more stories that we believe should be told, haven’t been told or are important to tell,” Ng says.
Asked to name a favorite space, he picks the central courtyard with a fountain, ancient Persian tile work and Moroccan lamps. It is both a place of solitude and reflection but also ideal for hosting programs such as a hip-hop dance event. “It becomes the heart of Shangri La because it can be so many things,” Ng says.
Ng took over when former director Deborah Pope retired. He praises Pope for a superb job of sorting through the objects and artwork to determine their cultural value and setting the stage for the museum to evolve.
While Duke traveled the world to create her own oasis, Ng says the house offers a place to begin other journeys. Duke added a codicil to her will: “I actually want a place of study, a place of learning, a museum,” Ng says, noting Duke did not say “keep my bed here.”
The center includes a history of Duke’s life as well as art, from medieval to modern, collected over the decades. For much of this year, parts of the property are under renovation, including replacing the swimming pool’s circulating system. The center strives to use construction as another palette by having artists paint on the temporary walls.
Ng notes that Duke championed causes before she died in 1993 that have only gained in relevance, including public health of young people and climate change research, as well as work to boost performing arts such as theater and jazz.
He adds, “I’m always in awe of that sense of judgment that she had,” Ng says. “But she still remains a mystery. She never asked Shangri La to be about her. She wanted it to be about the world.”
For more information and to arrange tour, go to shangrilahawaii.org.
- Built: 1925
- Bedrooms: Five
- Fun fact: This house is designed in “Storybook Style,” a whimsical design period of American architecture that emerged in Los Angeles in the 1920s.
The Nu‘uanu home of designer Amerjit Ghag, owner of Island Bungalow, and Larry Heim, co-owner of HonBlue and Brue Bar, reflects the creative natures of both. Their house is full of vibrant colors, local-leaning art—Pegge Hopper, Jodi Endicott, Mark Chai—along with prints and pieces gathered from their travels.
They had been planning on renovating a home in Lanikai when they stumbled upon the 1925 house designed in the “Storybook Style” by architect Robert Gaylor Miller. They were actually looking for a rental. “Nobody would rent to us because we had small children and a dog,” Ghag says.
When they fell in love with the property they knew it needed extensive work, from shoring up the sinking foundation to killing termites, freeing windows frozen in place, sealing lead paint. “Our friends all thought we were crazy,” she says.
When they renovated they preserved and adapted where they could. “Every door in this house is an arch,” she notes. Architect Geoffrey Lewis designed the addition, moving French doors from one side of the house to the other when they expanded the living area and adding a master bedroom with a gabled roof. The couple sought to pull together old and new in large and small ways. When they needed newer material, they found options such as ipe wood floors or stained concrete to complement the style of the house. They updated the kitchen appliances and installed a beer tap but retained the patterned tile of the original bathroom floors.
They brought in furniture from a mix of garage sales and Island Bungalow, she says, along with items from Bali and Morocco, textiles from India, couches for reading and talking. Inspired by a trip to southern Spain, they recently added a fountain in the front, striking a balance between what they saw abroad and what they could adapt to their home. And the house has a family feeling for the couple, their daughters and dog, with chickens in the backyard. “There’s something about the aura of this house,” Ghag says. “It’s like a big hug. I just feel it has a very caring energy.”
The house does have some quirks. Sometimes the plaster and lath walls interfere with mobile phones. “I have to go out and stand in the yard on one foot to get reception,” she says without complaint. But that’s just part of the charm. “It’s been a labor of love and we’re still not finished,” she says.
- Built: 1921
- Bedrooms: Four
- Fun fact: The house includes a vintage 1936 Otis elevator that is still operating today.
Mary Cooke graciously glides from room to room of Kūali‘i with a quiet pride in the 1911 Tudor-style mansion she and her husband, Sam, bought from her in-laws in 1970, saving it from aggressive termites and her relatives’ plan to tear it down. “It was very dark and dingy, off-blue and gray walls,” she recalls.
Mary and Sam met as children, then began dating while both attended Cornell University. She says Sam had already started collecting, a lifelong passion that is abundantly clear from the art gracing the home’s walls and shelves.
After marrying, they eventually moved to Mānoa and built a modern home near her in-laws. A neighboring property was being sold by a relative but Sam bought it back to save and restore the overgrown heiau there, Kūka‘ō‘ō. In 1996, the couple founded the Mānoa Heritage Center as a “3.5-acre living classroom dedicated to promoting an understanding of the cultural and natural heritage of Hawai‘i.”
Sam passed away in December 2015, but not before he and Mary had arranged for the building’s transition to a historic house museum. For now, their private home, which is on both the national and state historic registers, is accessible only by invitation.
One indication of the myriad visitors over the years is a guest book that Sam’s grandparents started when they moved in on Jan. 22, 1912. Mary made a copy so that new pages could be added without damaging the old.
The pages tell the stories of parties past, of operas and recitals, some with 150 guests at a time. “It’s always been a house where they had community events,” Cooke says, and she’s keeping up the tradition, with a recent performance by Sam’s cousin, noted mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who was performing in the modern opera As One.
And there were TV appearances. “When we moved in, Hawai‘i Five-0 asked if they could come and film,” Cooke says. Three episodes were filmed with Jack Lord, including “Highest Castle, Deepest Grave,” which aired in 1971, “The Diamond That Nobody Stole” in 1973 and “Ring of Life” in 1975.
The spirit of their family—Mary, Sam and their three daughters, Julie, Cathy and Edi—is present throughout the house. Their art collections include depictions of ships and Hawaiian places, and lots of carved wood, from ancient vessels to a modern wood calabash by Alani Apio. A photo of Julie and some of her Punahou classmates taken in the living room rests on an antique cabinet there, across from the fireplace. That classmate in the middle, who signed the photo as Barry, is better known now as former President Barack Obama.
Asked if she has a favorite room, Mary pauses to ponder the question. “Golly, I don’t,” she says. “I love them all.”
Cooke appreciates the efforts of all who have helped them keep the home, heiau and center thriving. And she has worked for decades to stay on top of the job. “Mary has this incredible binder of every bit of work she has had done on the house—great records that make it so easy to care for now, because we know what you’ve already had done to it,” says Jenny Leung, the center’s cultural site manager, with a nod toward Mary.
On the home’s maintenance, Cooke acknowledges the scope of the task but sees the importance of legacy. “It’s just one project after another to keep this house going,” she admits with a smile.
Still, a plumber who worked on a number of repairs there may have summed up the task of owning a large historic home most succinctly: “No more end, no?” And that’s just what the Cookes intend.
The Cooke book
The book Paintings, Prints, and Drawings of Hawai‘i from the Sam and Mary Cooke Collection offers a peek into the history and art of this private house, which will someday become a museum. Proceeds from the sale of the nearly 200-page coffee-table book support the Mānoa Heritage Center. manoaheritagecenter.org
For more info on the Mānoa Heritage Center, go to manoaheritagecenter.org
- Built: 1903
- Bedrooms: Seven
- Fun fact: The turret or tower room is now a bedroom, but a drain in the floor suggests it was once open to the elements.
The national historic register traces the Makiki mansion known as Greystones to 1903, when Alfred Hocking commissioned the Queen Anne-style Victorian. The house was designed by architect E.A.P. Newcomb, in partnership with a young C.W. Dickey, for the founder of Honolulu Brewing and Malting Co. in Kaka‘ako.
Set in dense Makiki, the home is up on a hill so it’s largely hidden from the road.
Myrna Murdoch has lived at and cared for Greystones for the past decade. While the house does require considerable maintenance, it has unusual features—“the stone,” she says, “is 21 inches thick, so it’s always cool in the summer”—that make it more livable.
Built by a brewer, the house includes “lots of secret passageways,” Murdoch says, which could have been helpful during Prohibition. The house has wide appeal—adults often admire the high ceilings, the formal dining room and the library, while “children often crash on the pūne‘e (couch).
Murdoch says only a few modern features have been added to the home over the years. For example, when Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston restored the house in the 1980s, he added the stained glass that faces mauka. But Murdoch says most of the house stays true to the original intent. “One of my chandeliers is half electricity, half gas,” she adds.
Murdoch often coordinates with charitable organizations and community groups for events at the historic home. She’s helped host fundraisers, tours and recently a prom for special education students from nearby Roosevelt High School. “It’s gone from the horse-and-carriage day when you could look at Diamond Head and hear the Matson steamer come around the point, have time to saddle up the horse and carriage and still get your house guests down at the docks, to being really convenient to hopping on the freeway today,” Murdoch says.
She feels fortunate to meet many people who’ve been previous residents of the house, or their relatives. They include Edmund Lee—son of the second owner, Rose Lee—who celebrated his 70th birthday party there.
“I do think it is important to preserve the past just so we have a little bit of a road map for the future,” she says, adding that all great houses have staying power: “They survived, they thrived, they’ve adapted. We all have to do that in order to be around tomorrow.”
Sharing the house comes back in numerous ways, she says, with people bringing photos, newspaper clippings and other mementos to add to her collection. She’s also been able to have fun reliving some of those good times in the past few years: “A lot of people used to slide down the front lawn on blocks of ice from Kaya Fishing,” she says. And now she has gone ice sliding, too.
The house “looks better in the candlelight like I do,” Murdoch jokes, “but she’s still a beautiful old girl.”
- Built: 1937
- Bedrooms: Six
- Fun fact: The chimney has a split duct that goes to the large fireplace in the living room and acts as an exhaust from the kitchen stove.
In 1937, Wallace M. Alexander built the beachfront home Haumalu for his daughter, Martha, and her husband, Dr. Frank Gerbode. Architect C.W. Dickey designed the home with the sloping double-pitched roof line he popularized but didn’t invent.
The one-story house, with a large lānai that welcomes the outside in, is now owned by the Twigg-Smith family. It retains a simple elegance of time gone by. “My family bought it in 1998 from the Japanese owners who had bought it from the Gerbode family,” says Tim Twigg-Smith.
Tim and his wife, Maggie, both property managers, treasure family gatherings there: “the open air, the large doors, the huge breezeway.” Standing on the oceanside lawn, a visitor can see that the roofline and position of the house are meant to mimic the slope of nearby Diamond Head. The house includes broad redwood siding, stained concrete flooring and a large chimney, moss rock walls and a cedar shake roof. The Twigg-Smith family has decorated in a comfortable Island style with vintage furniture and broad couches offering a welcoming feel. Nearly every wall is hung with art of Hawai‘i and Tahiti, much of it painted by Tim’s father, mother, sister and brother-in-law. “The living room is definitely a favorite room with the coral rock fireplace and large sliding doors that open to the outside,” Twigg-Smith says.
Born on Maui into a missionary family, home founder Alexander worked for years in sugar for the family company, Alexander & Baldwin. The California Historical Society Quarterly’s 1939 obituary paints him as an industrious but generous man who loved opera and promoted international peace.
His daughter’s story is even more fascinating. Gerbode, who died in 1971, was remembered for her passion for a wide range of causes in Honolulu and San Francisco, including historic preservation, the environment, Planned Parenthood and the preservation of Alcatraz. An oral history prepared after her death described her legacy “as one of valiant action, remembered laughter, and keenness of vision that embraced diversity and sought to bring people together.”
Twigg-Smith says his family was able to purchase about a third of the original parcel. He credits his neighbor, Dr. Moon Park, founder of Clinical Labs of Hawai‘i, and Park’s wife, Marilyn, for purchasing the rest and going to extraordinary measures to preserve the aesthetic of the neighborhood.
Twigg-Smith says it was clear that the couple could have built a new modern home for much less money, time and effort, or subdivided the property into multiple homes. “Everybody thought whoever bought that side was just going to tear it down and just make wall-to-wall, like an L.A.-style mausoleum house,” Twigg-Smith says. Instead, “they rebuilt the house in exactly the style of the previous one. It’s really nice for the community,” he says.
For Twigg-Smith, owning Haumalu is a kind of homecoming, because he spent his childhood in a nearby home on the Waikīkī side of the property.
“We grew up next to it but the house was always overgrown by large trees” after the Gerbode family had mostly moved to San Francisco, Twigg-Smith says. “They used to come back and visit but, from what I understand, nobody really lived there for decades,” he says. “To us kids it was just an old haunted house buried under trees. It was real spooky.”
Even with the neglect, Twigg-Smith says, the house was actually in really good shape, which made it relatively easy to restore.
Twigg-Smith praised original owner Martha Alexander Gerbode for helping to preserve the neighborhood through the Save Diamond Head movement. “They were trying to make high-rises there. She had a lot to do with the city buying Makalei Park,” he says.
- Built: 1949
- Bedrooms: Three
- Fun fact: The owners continue to seek out furniture from the period when the house was built and recently added a ’50s-style diner booth in the kitchen.
An architect designs a home for a writer in Mānoa. Decades pass, as do the architect and the author. A couple—who had been actively searching for a home—stumble upon the midcentury modern house while out for a walk to soothe their teething infant daughter.
The young dad recalls: “It looked like it had been lifted straight from the set of Mad Men and dropped into the rainforest. It was NOT for sale.”
He and his wife, born and raised in Honolulu, pondered their next move only to learn the next day that the house just went on the market.
It almost sounds like a movie script but this tale of serendipity is true. The house was designed by architect Alfred Preis, best remembered for the clean distinctive lines of the USS Arizona Memorial, the Honolulu Zoo entrance and a number of houses across O‘ahu, including a cluster in Mānoa. In 1949, Preis designed a home for Oswald “Ozzie” Bushnell, historian, novelist, microbiologist and UH professor. The couple with the teething infant daughter who went on to become the home’s latest owners? Jordan and Rebecca Kandell. Jordan is a screenwriter and journalist. Jordan’s name is probably most familiar when paired with his twin brother, Aaron. The ‘Iolani graduates are best known for their work on the blockbuster Moana movie. Rebecca holds a degree in architecture.
Rebecca picks up the story: “We love midcentury architecture and the property was unlike anything we had seen in Mānoa. We are both artists and when you walk into our house, it screams Jordan and Rebecca. It’s not for everyone, but our colorful, bold and meticulous style make it feel like it is an extension of our lives.”
Before they could move in, they learned the termite-ravaged classic had to be rebuilt from the inside out. They used the original blueprints of the house as a guide, moving away from later changes, they said.
Original redwood panels were removed, sanded and stained to the original green color. And the Kandells wove a green and red color scheme throughout, finding furniture and artwork to complement the house and express their own aesthetic.
The Kandells say that great houses reflect a respect for architecture and nature, a pride of ownership. “We are always excited to see homes that are bright and cheery, and that reflect the island that we live on and the environment around us,” Rebecca says.
While the couple made an effort to be true to the work of architect Preis, they also remember author Bushnell. Jordan says he and writing partner/twin brother Aaron often work in a garage they converted to an office. But he also sometimes writes at a desk in the living room facing the ocean, the spot where Bushnell often sat to write.
Even though the renovation took years, they agree that it was worth the wait and work. With the design of the house and the way it invites the outdoors in, “basically, in every room you feel like you’re living in nature,” Jordan says.
- Built: 1922
- Bedrooms: 10
- Fun fact: The villa cost what was then a staggering sum of $400,000 including the main building with five public rooms around the courtyard, two bedrooms downstairs, eight upstairs, as well as a sitting room, sleeping porch, kitchen, pantry, vault and cloakroom.
In 1910, prominent businessman Walter Dillingham married Louise Gaylord. Inspired by a 600-year-old villa in Tuscany where they married and went on their honeymoon, the two ignored the convention of the times to build on what was then the remote slopes of Diamond Head, rather than green Mānoa or Tantalus.
Their 10-bedroom home, designed by architect David Adler, was completed in 1922 and included a great lawn, swimming pool, formal dining room, horse stables, tennis courts and a game/pool room. Louise Dillingham told people the home was not a copy of the Tuscany La Pietra (which means stone or gem) but a combination of features from several places they toured. According to a detailed history by longtime teacher Jack Gillmar, the central courtyard’s sandstone columns came from a quarry at what was then Barbers Point, while other sandstone came from Kahuku.
Over the years, news reports show the family entertained some of the world’s most famous people at the estate, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Cole Porter, Walt Disney, Thailand’s King Prajadhipok and the Prince of Wales.
Director of admissions Megan Meyer notes that the family also would ride their horses to nearby Kapi‘olani Park.
After Dillingham’s death in 1963, the property went to Punahou School, which used it for faculty housing. By 1969, two women with dreams of an independent girls school purchased the estate and La Pietra – Hawai‘i School for Girls gained a permanent campus for girls in grades six through 12.
Some staff and faculty members say they feel the presence and the history of the family who appear in photos and paintings at the school.
The great lawn remains a prominent feature, complete with a sarcophagus that the school assures us is empty. The central courtyard bustles with students, and some classrooms and offices are lined with rock walls.
As with many a mansion, one expects talk of ghosts. In this case, it’s a mischievous one. Son Gaylord Dillingham, who served as a fighter pilot in World War II, was shot down and killed in 1945. So when a door slams or a computer goes on at night, “Gaylord” often gets the credit for returning to his childhood home, says Gay Chinen, the school’s dean of students, whose office is lined with framed blueprints of the original villa.
Apparently, everyone has issues with neighbors. The story is passed on that Louise Dillingham complained the animals at the Honolulu Zoo kept her awake some nights when “you could hear the lions roaring.”
- Built: 2015
- Bedrooms: Five
- Fun fact: The house includes a fireplace with a glass back wall that’s also a window to the outside.
Architect Fritz Johnson designed the most contemporary house on our list, completed in 2015 on Wilhelmina Rise, for a physician with a young family.
At first glance, the house looks modest. “It’s got a super low profile from the street; it looks like a little one-story house,” Johnson says, but from the pool, the home’s spacious three levels come into view.
The family requested a mix of playful space for the kids, an open feeling to the central core of the house and low-key private space for the master suite and children’s bedrooms.
“There’s a lot of slope and there’s a lot of rules in the City and County of Honolulu about what you can do on properties on slopes,” Johnson says. “This was almost like a mathematical exercise, where we had to look at the functional requirements and then we had to look at all of the restrictions on the site.”
In a neighborhood that includes older plantation-style homes with broad porches, Johnson worked with the family to design a project adapted to the steeply sloped site.
They stressed attention to the approaching sun and weather, and of course, the panoramic view from the house, which looks down on the back of Diamond Head and beyond.
And he used modern building techniques to bring in natural cooling. “We’ve got things like 12-foot cantilevered lānai and 12-foot overhangs that massively shelter what I’m calling these outdoor rooms,” Johnson says. “A more traditional roof would never go that far out.”
Johnson says the biggest challenge of the house was creating a sophisticated structural system, using post-tensioned concrete. He says the technique, more common in high-rises, allows a thinner concrete floor, which enabled the construction of the three-story home within the legal height limit. The design is least formal on the lower floor and most structured on the top floor. “The very bottom floor is almost a hose-it-down kids playroom, which opens to the pool and the yard” and includes a guest room, Johnson says. To access the outside, you roll up an automatic garage door.
The second floor is a great room with open flow between the kitchen, dining and living rooms and a larger lānai.
Johnson says the central staircase ended up being his favorite part of the house. “It’s like this big helix, although it’s not round, that opens up and unites the three levels of the house,” he says.
How does he define a great house? “A lot of it is stuff you can’t articulate,” Johnson says. “A thing that works very well, is really well-organized, is really well-thought out and yes, when you’re there is somehow more than those things—that’s a great piece of design.”
Conversely, luxury items and expensive components alone can’t make a house great. “It’s sort of like a sentence that’s got a lot of 50-cent words but no grammar. If there is such a thing as architectural grammar, that’s way more important than the syntax, I think,” Johnson says.
- Built: 1952
- Bedrooms: Four
- Fun fact: House Beautiful Magazine featured the home on its cover and in a 53-page spread in 1958.
Simply driving to the Liljestrand House begins the journey to another space and time. Winding your way up Tantalus, the air cools, trees thicken, clouds are closer. Down the narrow road, through more trees, you find the house, which looks modest from the loop of a driveway.
But slowly, the structure reveals itself, a dramatic lānai juts into view. Designed by noted Russian architect Vladimir Ossipoff for Betty and Howard Liljestrand, the house is a prime example of Ossipoff’s detailed work as well as mid-20th-century Hawai‘i modern architecture.
Starting in 1952 after years of back-and-forth planning, Betty Liljestrand served as general contractor, supervising the carpenters and day-to-day work. “She was a real workhorse,” says her son, Bob Liljestrand. “When she took on a project, it was like, get out of her way. The natural quality and the view is hidden from you until you come actually into the house, even when you step into the house,” says Liljestrand, who holds a master’s degree in architecture. He lives on the property and has been instrumental in putting together a foundation to preserve the house.
“We’ve learned it’s pretty tricky to preserve architecture,” Liljestrand says. “You need to sort of repurpose it in a way that preserves the architectural quality.”
The architecture blends into the mountain, known in Hawaiian as Pu‘u ‘Ōhi‘a, welcoming the natural beauty from every room. Windows open to the views, rooms connect to common spaces. Even wind circulation was taken into account.
After he’d grown up and moved out, Bob Liljestrand often would return to house-sit when his parents traveled. After one trip, he told his dad: “You know you really need a light in the living room so you can read.” His father replied: “Well, you’re not supposed to read in the living room. You’re supposed to have conversations in the living room. If you want to read, go to the library.”
The family and foundation preserved the furniture that Ossipoff designed for the house—and Robert Ansteth built—with the same attention to detail. Chairs are grouped for conversation and broad couches invite visitors to linger. For the table in the conversation area, Ossipoff asked Bob’s father to find a guava branch with three points up and three points down to create the plastic-topped table.
Liljestrand says a couple of comfortable chairs were added to the library when his father was in his 90s so he could watch movies without having to drive to theaters alone at night. “Other than that everything has been sitting here for 65 years,” he says.
And this meticulous preservation has drawn people from around the world. Since 2010, the foundation has collaborated with 30 local and global nonprofit organizations on more than 80 programs and events, including tours, conferences, receptions, meetings and fundraisers. The family formed a foundation in 2007 but took another decade to settle the details of the estate, he says.
Last year, the house hosted a series of author readings—featuring among others, William Finnegan, Billy Collins and Hope Jahren—through its educational and cultural partnerships. For Bob Liljestrand and the foundation, part of the mission is preserving the work of one of Hawai‘i’s greatest artists. “Everybody would have a fit if you destroyed a Madge Tennent but for some reason, they don’t have a fit if you destroy an Ossipoff house,” he says ruefully.
For more about the foundation and to arrange a tour, go to liljestrandhouse.org.