Home Away from Home

A century-and-a-half ago, a diplomat to Hawaii brought some of the Islands back to his native Michigan.

Photo by Dennis Cox/Worldviews

Interested in touring the Honolulu House?  You can find details at www.marshallhistoricalsociety.org

There’s an interesting back story about why there’s a big house with a distinctly tropical look and a sign out front that reads, “Honolulu House” in Marshall, Mich.—where average temperatures in March range from the lower 20s to mid-30s.

In 1857, when Hawaii was an independent nation, President James Buchanan selected a former Michigan Supreme Court justice named Abner Pratt as U.S. consul to the then-Sandwich Islands. When Pratt and his wife, Eliza, landed in Honolulu, they quickly took to all aspects of Island life, from food to clothing to music and flora and fauna. They even lived in an Island-style house near Honolulu Harbor that was reminiscent of the first Iolani Palace.

But their tenure was short-lived due to Abner’s asthma, which was exacerbated by Hawaii’s climate. In 1859, they headed back to Marshall. Nostalgic for Hawaii, Abner soon began to design and build a substantial home, which he called Honolulu House. It cost $15,000 in 1860, about $324,880 in today’s dollars.

The Marshall Historical Society, which is now housed in the building, describes its exterior architecture as a blend of Italianate, Gothic and Polynesian. Distinctive features include a decorative nine-bay veranda, with the center bay leading up to a 30-foot-high observation tower. The home’s upper level contains a spacious central hall with an elaborate spiral staircase made of ebony, teak, mahogany and maple.

We don’t know how Abner would describe his tropical creation, but the Society’s executive director, Jennifer Rupp, considers it “an architectural gem.” “Its 15-foot ceilings, 10-foot doors and windows, hand-painted walls and ceilings and expansive veranda give the home a unique Island feel,” she says. “Also lending a Polynesian flair is the pagoda-topped observatory tower.” 

Pratt lavishly furnished the house with what he considered the trappings of the Islands: pineapple-shaped chandeliers, murals of tropical scenes, tapa cloth, Oriental and Polynesian art, shells, feather capes, swords and native torches. To carry the theme further, he served tropical foods to his guests and even wore white linen suits in the dead of winter.

Pratt may have gone too far, though.  it’s reported that, in the midst of foul weather in March 1863, he was wearing tropical clothing on a return trip from Lansing.  He contracted pneumonia and died shortly thereafter.

But his storied house still stands.  If you’d like to visit, it’s open daily from May through October.