February 13, 2015
A retreat fit for an heiress
BY JOANNE BLAIN
Pity Doris Duke, if you can. The only child of an American tobacco magnate, she was born into a world of immense wealth and privilege. But when she died in 1993 at the age of 80, she left behind two failed marriages, a daughter who died in infancy, years of scandal generated by her many affairs and legal wrangling among people trying to cash in on her estate, worth an estimated $1.2 billion.
During her troubled and increasingly reclusive life, one of the places she felt happiest was her home in Honolulu (one of half a dozen she owned). She started building it in 1937, soon after returning from a honeymoon trip around the world with her first husband, James Cromwell. Open to the public since 2002, the house — which Duke named Shangri La — allows visitors a glimpse into how the heiress lived. It’s likely not what you would expect. Duke became enchanted with Islamic art and architecture on her honeymoon, and when she bought a spectacular five-acre waterfront lot near Diamond Head, she envisioned a house that reflected her newfound passion.
The entrance to Shangri La is deceptively modest. After winding your way down a long, curved driveway, you’ll arrive at a blank whitewashed façade with imposing wooden doors but no windows and little other ornamentation. It’s in keeping with the Islamic tradition that mandates that the front of a house should not boast of the wealth or status of its owner. Inside, it’s a different story. Duke was an avid collector of art and antiquities, and she had both the taste and the budget to amass an impressive collection that Shangri La was designed to showcase. The long, narrow foyer was created by a Moroccan designer and features a hand-painted wooden ceiling and more than 600 19th-century tiles from Iznik, Turkey. It leads to an open central courtyard with a star-shaped fountain and a massive mosaic mural that Duke commissioned during a visit to Iran.
The Mihrab room is home to one of the most significant pieces in Duke’s collection, a prayer niche from a 13th-century tomb in Iran. It adjoins the expansive living room, which has one very modern (for the time) innovation — a glass wall designed by the Otis elevator company that descends completely into the floor at the touch of a button, revealing an unobstructed view of the outdoor pool with Diamond Head as a backdrop. The white-walled room is a showcase for Spanish and North African artifacts.
DESPITE ITS GRANDEUR, DUKE REGARDED SHANGRI LA AS HER SANCTUARY AND INVITED ONLY A FEW CLOSE FRIENDS TO STAY THERE
Last October, Duke’s own bedroom was opened to the public for the first time. Called the Mughal Suite, it incorporates a marble bathroom suite that Duke ordered in India on her honeymoon. Inspired by the Taj Mahal, the suite incorporates several large perforated marble screens, a mirrored tile ceiling and inlaid mother-of-pearl bureaus from Syria.
Duke kept adding pieces to Shangri La from her travels, but during her lifetime, it was a private retreat rather than a public showpiece. She entertained few guests there apart from close friends, who included Imelda Marcos and Errol Flynn. In her will, Duke left the home to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which was given the mandate of promoting the understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture. Private in life, she found a way to share her passion with the world after her death.
Guided tours of Shangri La (shangrilahawaii.org) must be reserved in advance through the Honolulu Museum of Art (honolulumuseum.org). Tours run Wednesday through Saturday throughout the year (except September, when the estate is closed for maintenance) and tickets cost $25 US. Transportation is by shuttle only, starting and ending at the museum.