When you think of Honolulu, you probably don’t think of important examples of Islamic art and architecture. At least, before my visit there several days ago, I didn’t. But Honolulu is home to a staggering collection of Islamic art and a stunning example of Islamic architecture. It’s known as Shangri La, and it was once the private residence of Doris Duke and James Cromwell, who, between 1936 and 1938, built the 14,000-square-foot house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head.
After the couple—Duke, the daughter of tobacco tycoon and Duke University founder James Buchanan Duke, and Cromwell, a businessman and sometime diplomat from New York and Philadelphia—married in 1935, they set off on an extensive honeymoon that took them, among other places, through the Islamic world, where Duke became enamored of Islamic art and architecture. When they reached Hawaii, the last stop on their honeymoon tour, Duke fell in love with the place, and the couple hired Palm Beach architect Marion Sims Wyeth to build a seasonal home for them there, calling it Shangri La. In addition to its architecture and the art behind its walls, Shangri La is said to be significant because it’s the only one of Duke’s multiple homes that she built from the ground up, and the only one she furnished from the inside out.
You can read a lot more about the home’s history and take a virtual tour of it on the Doris Duke Foundation’s website, but trust me when I say it’s best experienced on an in-person visit (tours are conducted in partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art). The intricate Iranian tiles, ornate furnishings, and colorful tapestries—and the gorgeous setting—are just too good to not see up close. The only downside to the tour is that guests aren’t permitted to take photos inside, which includes a gorgeous, airy courtyard that’s filled with plants, hand-painted tiles, and gloriously dappled sunlight. I snapped all of the photos in this post in areas of the home where photography was permitted, but they don’t even scratch the surface.
Our 90-minute tour started in the home’s stunning Mughal Garden (above and below), whose design was inspired by royal gardens throughout India. (The white structure below is a sitting/terrace area the couple built on top of their bedroom wing—it looks out over the Pacific and is visible from the Mughal Garden.) From there, we wound through its dark, dramatic foyer, its Mughal Suite (Duke’s personal bedroom, bath, and dressing area), living room, and several other spaces before heading back outside to a covered terrace and an open lawn overlooking the ocean and pool house.
Outdoor spaces, like the dreamy little garden below, link different sections of the home and add to its feeling of seclusion and luxurious privacy.
Here’s the only peek inside I was able to get. (No cheating, either! We were outside.) You can see a little bit of the carved furniture and intricate tile, but it’s still just a tiny drop in a big and very fabulous bucket.
No detail was overlooked, including the pattern of arches in a breezeway that linked the bedroom wing to the home’s foyer and front hallway.
Below are some of the thousands of colorful tiles found throughout Shangri La. These were affixed to one wall on an outdoor patio that overlooks the ocean and gives way to another green garden.
Just a simple little backyard with a simple little pool house.
The pool house, pictured above and below, hosts guests who are staying on property through the foundation’s artists-in-residence program. When it came to guests, our tour guide told us that Doris Duke was very particular about who she hosted at Shangri La. She once declined Jackie O.’s request to visit the property, but she gladly entertained the Jackson Five.
Wouldn’t you love to have been a guest here?
Are you heading to Honolulu soon? I can’t recommend a visit to Shangri La enough. And if you’ve been, tell me what you thought of it!