These 3 Historic Hawai‘i Houses Might Be On Sale Very Soon
Museums, universities and nonprofits used to be a safe haven for historic homes, a way to preserve them for public use. But now, three residences entrusted to local institutions are in danger of being sold.
George Wimberly was having a rough go of it. It was shortly after New Year’s Day, 1956, and the Honolulu-based architect was at work on a house for artist and writer Jean Charlot, a co-founder of the Mexican muralist movement who a few years prior had accepted a teaching post at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Wimberly, whom everyone called Pete, was a principal of the firm that would become WATG and was as talented as they come. But Charlot was an unusual client. The Paris-born artist had made hundreds of sketches of his dream house in various notebooks. In one, he drew a long, tapered table cantilevered in both directions from an exterior wall, forming conjoined indoor-outdoor dining areas. In another, he specified covering a wall in local fern. Wimberly was in charge of turning these ideas into reality, and it wasn’t going well. “I have been working on your plans diligently since your last letter and I must confess that I am completely at a loss,” the architect wrote to Charlot, who was on the Mainland completing a series of frescoes for the University of Notre Dame, in May 1956.
A few weeks later, Wimberly reported that the project had been “completely messed up in every way possible.” Communicating long distance was only making the project more difficult. “I feel that if you were able to sit down for fifteen minutes with me, we could get this thing squared away,” the architect wrote.
It took the rest of the year, but Wimberly eventually completed the plans for the house, to be built on a lot near Wai‘alae Country Club in Kāhala. In spite of the challenges, it was a masterpiece. Two stories tall, with a long, asymmetrical roofline, the house was a reflection of Charlot’s life: his childhood in France, the years he spent in Mexico, his growing interest in the vernacular architecture of the Islands. It included a studio space for Charlot, a loft for his children, an original fresco above the main living area, and, giving the house a dark, almost sacred earthiness, a wall clad in dried hāpu‘u ferns.
When the details were published in this magazine in 1965, managing editor Peggy Pavel wrote to Charlot saying a more handsome house had not been featured in its pages.
Half a century later, the Charlot House sits empty. The property, gifted to the University of Hawai‘i by the Charlot family in 2001 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, needs approximately half a million dollars’ worth of repairs, and Bill Chapman, interim dean of the School of Architecture, which oversees the house, has been tacitly informed that unless the school comes up with a plan to raise the necessary funds, the house may be sold. Chapman, who has spent his lengthy career in historic preservation, wants to see the house remain in UH’s care. But raising the money won’t be easy. “Preservation is a niche,” he says, surveying the house from the covered lānai. “This would be a niche within a niche within a niche.”
An Uncertain Future
If the university sells the Charlot House and it reverts back to a personal estate, off-limits to students and the public, it would be a tremendous loss. But it wouldn’t be the first time a historic property had been entrusted to a public or semipublic institution only to find itself sold back into private hands. In November 2019, the Honolulu Museum of Art put two nationally listed historic properties on the market: the Spalding House, a 1925 residence designed by Hart Wood for the museum’s founder, Anna Rice Cooke, and the Goodsill House, designed by Vladimir Ossipoff in 1953 for a prominent local attorney.
The Spalding House had been acquired in 2011, when The Contemporary Museum, which had operated the residence as an independent gallery since 1986, merged with what was then the Honolulu Academy of Arts. But the 3.5-acre property, with its immaculate gardens and 1920s architecture, eventually proved too wieldy a burden for the small museum. Visitation plateaued, and its location in a residential neighborhood meant that, according to city rules, the museum could host just six evening events per year, with no more than 200 people and no live music. Meanwhile, the property required three full-time groundskeepers, two security guards, and museum staff who were split between the Spalding House and the main museum. The café and gift shop were barely breaking even. The decision to put the property on the market “was hard,” says Allison Wong, the deputy director of the museum. “But it was a unanimous vote. Even people from The Contemporary Museum voted for it because they realized it was too much to maintain.”
The Goodsill House, a masterwork of tropical modernism located in the Ossipoff-designed subdivision, Pu‘u Panini near Diamond Head, faced a different set of constraints. It had been gifted to the museum, along with a $1 million endowment to pay for upkeep, in 2011 to be used as the director’s residence. Like the Charlot House, however, the Goodsill House began to show its age. Eventually the museum decided it wasn’t worth the money it would take to make the necessary repairs, which included electrical and plumbing upgrades. (The museum already had paid to re-roof the house and install new period-appropriate flooring.)
Then there was the design itself. The house’s living spaces are connected only by outdoor areas and covered walkways; a person can’t walk from the master bedroom to the kitchen without going outside. Although Hawai‘i’s climate makes such a design possible—perhaps even desirable—it’s not for everyone, Wong says. “Some directors loved it, some didn’t like it so much,” she says. “I would have a hard time raising my kids in that house.”
The sale of two, potentially three, historic residences does not represent a crisis—historic preservation has always been an uphill battle against time, real estate trends and myriad other forces—but it does raise questions about whether current programs and funding mechanisms are sufficient. Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, says the Honolulu Museum of Art’s decision, combined with concerns over the future of the Charlot House, is indicative of the state of support for preservation—and not just here.
“We as a society are under-investing in places that have meaning and significance to our society and culture,” Faulkner says. “These institutions are probably making the best decisions they can given the circumstances. I think it reflects a greater societal need to really invest in places that matter to us. We, collectively, have the obligation and the opportunity to care for these places.”
An Artist’s Dream, A Preservationist’s Nightmare
Preserving a historic building can be a bit like caring for an endangered species whose habitat is disappearing. It’s a long and costly endeavor. Period-specific fixtures and building materials can be difficult to source, as can the expertise to install them. Sometimes the very thing that makes a house worth preserving also makes it a conservation nightmare.
The wild ideas and custom details that caused Pete Wimberly so much grief during the design are part of what sets the Charlot House apart from other midcentury homes. But the house’s idiosyncratic nature also poses novel preservation challenges. Case in point: the hāpu‘u fern wall. “That is a biological material, and it’s starting to get dry and brittle and very fragile,” Faulkner says. “Conservation of that wall is a very real concern.”
Glenn Mason, president of Honolulu-based Mason Architects—which focuses on historic preservation—says he’s been asked about those same wall panels. “Quite honestly, I’m not exactly sure how they’re going to be duplicated or repaired,” he says. “I’m sure that we could figure it out. But there are no duplicate materials. You somehow have to figure out how you’re going to get some hāpu‘u to look like that, and there’s environmental issues that would need to be dealt with. That will be an interesting preservation challenge.”
But it may also be an opportunity. Faulkner says the Charlot House could serve as a living laboratory, enabling further research into material conservation, particularly as it relates to the midcentury period. “Pre-World War II, the materials are very straightforward. It’s wood, it’s stone, it’s nails,” she says. “But post-World War II, there was a lot more synthetic materials, experimental materials. And those are starting to show their age, and I don’t know that material conservation science has kept up necessarily. That’s why I think this house could serve as a wonderful laboratory for that kind of study.”
A Need for New Funding
Historic preservation has never been simple or straightforward. Setting aside the question of whose history is most often represented by national register listings (hint: it’s rarely indigenous peoples’ or that of other minority groups), preservation requires a delicate balancing act, honoring the works of past visionaries while adapting those works to present-day needs. Property owners often need to navigate intricate bureaucratic processes—established by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act—and hire specialized consultants, all of which take time and resources.
The government—at both federal and local levels—offers programs to help owners rehab qualifying structures. In Hawai‘i, homeowners whose properties are listed on the Hawai‘i Register of Historic Places qualify for a property tax abatement that lowers their annual tax bill to just $100, regardless of the value of the house. (Typically, the bill on a property appraised at $500,000 would be $1,400 per year, which is less than in many other places as Hawai‘i has the lowest property tax rate in the nation.)
The problem is that tax-exempt organizations like UH and the Honolulu Museum of Art aren’t eligible for these programs. This seems fair at first—not paying any taxes is a pretty good deal—but it does not leave nonprofits any incentive for keeping the properties, or acknowledge the value of the historic home.
Faulkner says there are ways to get creative. For Kunia Village, an 82-unit affordable housing development in Central O‘ahu, the landowner and developer, both nonprofits, took advantage of federal historic preservation tax credits by entering into a limited partnership with Alliant Capital, effectively swapping the tax credits for cash, which was then used to rehabilitate the former plantation houses. “That kind of partnership works very well, and our museums and institutions here have not really taken advantage of it to the extent that I think they might,” Faulkner says.
Mason of Mason Architects says another place to look to may be Guam. In 1990, the Guam Preservation Trust was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the island’s historic sites. It is primarily funded through revenues generated by building permit fees collected by the Department of Public Works. That money is then distributed through grants and other means to fund rehabilitation projects. “We don’t have anything like that here,” Mason says.
A Model Home
As a result of funding challenges, both nonprofits and property owners are thinking twice before they make or accept donations of historic properties. Bob Liljestrand, a former hospital administrator and independent photographer, grew up in what is arguably Vladimir Ossipoff’s magnum opus, a modern home located on the slopes of Tantalus. He inherited the house with his three siblings after the death of their parents, Betty and Howard Liljestrand. As an appreciator of design, Bob Liljestrand recognized the house for what it was: a one-of-a-kind Hawai‘i modern masterpiece that was doubly unique for the amount of documentation the family kept, from photographs to letters to receipts from subcontractors. He was determined to save it, but he wasn’t sure how.
Early on, attorneys recommended that the children gift the house to the university. Already saddled with the Charlot House, however, the university asked for a $2 million endowment to fund its maintenance. Liljestrand demurred. Instead, he created the Liljestrand Foundation and convinced his siblings to donate the house to the newly formed entity. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Liljestrand Foundation is tax-exempt, but the siblings still had to pay inheritance tax so Liljestrand and his brother, Eric, agreed to sell their personal residences to foot the bill. After their house sold, Liljestrand and his wife, Vicky, decamped to a garden shed on the Liljestrand House property, which was built during the construction of the main house. “We went and got a gas stove and literally camped in the garden for almost three years,” he recalls.
Today, the house is wholly owned by the Liljestrand Foundation. Its funding is a pastiche of rental income from a family property in California, revenues from tours and other events, and one-off donations. Most recently, the foundation launched a Friends of the Liljestrand House program and also began hosting a series of design conversations with notable architects and designers (tickets are $40). It hasn’t been an easy journey but the creation of the private foundation was the best path, Liljestrand says. “It’s a wonderful idea to say, oh, let’s give it to a university that will value this, but that often turns into a mess,” he says. As for why he was willing to sacrifice so much to preserve his childhood home, he says it’s simply a matter of personal belief. “I believe that architecture is a form of art,” he says. “Ossipoff was in the [second] Artists of Hawai‘i book. So if he’s an artist, this is one of his finest works, and you wouldn’t paint over the ‘Mona Lisa.’”
Protected, for Now
The Charlot House is not in immediate danger of being demolished. Unlike the Spalding House, which currently is listed for $15 million and could face the wrecking ball should a buyer decide to redevelop the property, the Charlot House is protected by what’s known as a preservation easement, a legally binding agreement between the owner and the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation that prohibits any activity that would alter the character of the historic property. The foundation purchased the easement in 2001 when the house was gifted to the university.
Importantly, the easement stays with the property in perpetuity, which means that even if the house is sold to a private owner, the terms still apply. “They’re really the strongest legal preservation mechanism available, because they run with the land, they’re absolutely binding, and they’re not based on regulations or government intervention,” Faulkner says. Because of this, only the most preservation-minded property owners are amenable to such a restrictive covenant; the easement at the Charlot House, for instance, is one of just three that the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation holds.
Although an easement protects the house from being suddenly destroyed, it doesn’t prevent it from slowly falling into disrepair. Nor does it solve the question of what to do with the house, or how to pay for its upkeep. At the moment, unlike with the Liljestrand House, there is no single entity coordinating outreach and education activities or providing public tours. There are no formal programs or event series that take place there. Occasionally, the house is rented out for meetings or other events, or provided as housing for visiting professors. In 2017, the house served as a studio space for the University of Hawai‘i Community Design Center. But the house’s location miles from the main campus has made regular use by students and faculty difficult.
Still, Chapman, the interim dean of the School of Architecture, is optimistic that the university can find a use that is compatible with the university’s mission while protecting the home. “My first vision was we look at the house as an asset, and we [create] the Annual Charlot Visiting Professor, and we get some young architect on their first sabbatical, some big name early in their career,” he says. “It’s still not a bad idea. The trouble is that we’d need to raise $500,000 to fix it up, and maybe $2 million as an endowment to pay for the maintenance.”
In what he sees as a good sign, however, the Jean Charlot Collection, housed at the University of Hawai‘i, recently received a $300,000 donation, and one arts patron told Chapman that raising $1 million toward the rehabilitation of the Charlot House would be “a piece of cake.” In the end, Chapman says, “It will depend on how much aloha there is in the community.”