Castle in the Sky

For a busy single mom, this Hokua penthouse apartment has become the ideal home—after a few tweaks, of course.

Photo: Hal Lum


When you’ve got a budget topping $3 million, shopping for a new home becomes less about “What do I want,” and more about “What don’t I want.” When this single mom outgrew a two-bedroom apartment at One Waterfront Towers, she toured the usual residential dream areas—Hawai‘i Loa Ridge, Kahala. But it all seemed a bit much for her. “It hit me that two girls living by themselves in a big house is just not a good idea,” she says. It was a question of security, sure, but, even more than that, a full size house is a lot to take care of. And so the convenient urban lifestyle being pitched by Honolulu’s newest crop of luxury condominiums appealed to her.

She visited a few of these condos, looking for large, three-bedroom units, but nothing really jumped out at her—until she walked through the door of this Hokua penthouse suite. It was love at first sight. An expansive, 2,200-square-foot layout included three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a huge kitchen, and distinct living room and dining room areas.

The view from the living room lanai.

photos: hal lum, courtesy of richard peterson


Unlike many condos, in which the front door dumps you right into the living room, the layout for this penthouse more closely resembled that of a house, with an entryway leading to separate wings, one for the bedrooms and another for the public areas.

And then there was the view—a spectacular panorama that wraps from Ala Moana Beach Park to Diamond Head to the mountains behind, depending on where you stand. “I just felt this calming effect,” the owner recalls. “Something about that ocean view.”

Even the penthouse’s location in the building seemed ideal. “It’s a corner unit, so I have a view from every single room, even my master shower,” she says. “And because I’m on the Diamond Head side of the building, there’s no afternoon sun.”





A large pool area looks out over Ala Moana Beach Park.

photo: courtesy of the kobayashi group

Of course, having found the perfect apartment, the first order of business was to rip everything out and start fresh. You might think that a multi-million dollar penthouse would come lavishly appointed with the finest interior finishes, but, in fact, Hokua’s developers left the units relatively bare-bones: white carpeting, plain white walls, metal door frames. At this price point, customization is expected.

The owner’s realtor, Maria Hsu, hooked her up with architect Richard Peterson, who specializes in high-end redesigns. After touring the place, Peterson decided that job No. 1 was toning down the white-on-white color scheme. The huge windows offered an amazing view, but they also let in a blinding amount of light; the white walls only accentuated the glare.

A simple paint job wouldn’t do. “We just went for it,” says Peterson. “We gutted the place—except for the kitchen—tore out all the doors, the door frames, the carpet, the baseboards. We basically took it back down to an empty concrete box.”

Left: Brazilian cherry wood flooring and an eclectic mix of furniture enliven a formerly stark bedroom. Right: The master bedroom as it originally appeared.

photos: hal lum, courtesy of richard peterson


Peterson then filled the unit with darker, warmer colors: African mahogany paneling in the central hallway, Brazilian cherry wood flooring through most of the apartment, rich gold walls in the living room. “The actual building itself is very contemporary,” he says. “We took those contemporary lines and softened them into something a little more traditional. We wanted high-end without being glitzy.”

Peterson says that it was a good thing the fundamental layout of the place required little to no tweaking, because modern high-rise construction technologies don’t leave much flexibility for extensive reworking under the surface.

“The floors in here are only six inches thick; it’s the tensioned steel cables running through them that gives them their strength,” he says. “In the older condos, the floors are a foot thick, and we could drill into them without worrying, we could move electrical and plumbing. I did a place at the Wailana at Waikiki, which was built in the ’60s or ’70s, and everything was made of hugely thick concrete. We completely redid the master bathroom area, because we were able to chip down into the concrete and move the plumbing. In these new buildings, you can’t do that.”




What a difference— Richard Peterson created a welcoming entranceway using African mahogany for the paneling, the doors and the trim. Hand-made Italian glass sconces give the hallway a warm glow.
INSET: The apartment as it originally appeared.

photo: hal lum.
inset: courtesy of richard peterson

In fact, Peterson was limited to drilling five-eighths of an inch into the floor, only enough for tasks such as anchoring the draperies. Any more would have required expensive X-rays to avoid hitting the hidden steel cables.

As a result, the master bathroom got fewer changes than most of the other rooms, although the owner plans to replace the shower area’s travertine walls with a marble mosaic.

When it came to furnishings, the owner decided to pursue an “East meets West” philosophy, pairing hand-painted Asian pieces with elegant Victorian ones. None of the furniture is part of a matched set; the owner aimed for an eclectic, comfortable feel. “I didn’t want a showroom,” she says. “I wanted my daughter to be able to actually sit on the couch and watch TV. It’s important to be practical.”

For the owner’s walk-in closet, Peterson created a custom shelving system, designed to her specific wardrobe needs, using African mahogany to mirror the paneling in the hallway. “I like to take one material and run it throughout the design of a place,” he says.

The entire renovation took about four months, and cost $400,000, which sounds like a lot until you take into account the initial purchase price: $3 million.

The owner moved into the apartment in October 2006, and she says living in the heart of urban Honolulu has been all that she had hoped for. Her daughter’s school is just minutes away, as are her own downtown meetings, and all the diversions of Ward Center are right at their doorstep. “I couldn’t be happier,” she says. “We can walk to the movies, walk to the mall—everything is walkable.” And the area continues to fill with new, cool stuff; the owner is particularly looking forward to the opening of Whole Foods in 2008.

For many of her needs, she doesn’t have to leave Hokua at all. The condominium boasts a fully equipped gym, a large pool area, a dog park, tennis courts and open-air cabanas with Wolf grills for outdoor barbecues. “My daughter’s favorite feature is the playground,” the owner says. “And the staff here is awesome. They know we live here by ourselves, so they really look out for us. They have dry cleaning service, so I just drop it off downstairs and they’ll deliver it right to my apartment.”

Above: Hokua’s posh lobby features artwork by local artists such as sculptor John Koga.

photos: courtesy of the kobayashi group


There’s even a feeling of community at Hokua, with an active social committee and special events for residents. “There are a lot of well-known people who live here, and I think because of that, it’s like everyone knows everyone else in the building,” says the owner. “It’s like a big family. It’s a nice feeling.”

Everything she needs is right in Kakaako. Does she ever regret not getting a traditional house for her daughter to grow up in? Not at all, she says. “Usually, when you live in a condo, the kids don’t have a yard to play in. But we have Ala Moana Beach Park right in front of us, so really, she’s not missing out on anything.”



Automated roll-down bamboo shades from Castec help block out the morning sun. The hand-tufted Marilyn sofa from Randolph and Hein is the comfiest seat in the house.

photo: hal lum