The Famous Hawaiian Mansion That’s a Work of Art

Shangri La | Oahu, Hawaii
Shangri La | Oahu, Hawaii

When you’ve already shopped ’til you dropped and baked yourself ’til you’re positively golden-brown, a tour of this magnificent mansion in Oahu will provide some serious eye candy, and you might even learn something along the way…

If mention of the word ‘museum’ brings up traumatic flashbacks of painstakingly dry and slow historical walking tours, rest assured what I’m about to suggest isn’t your regular hushed-toned palace of antiquity. One peek inside the museum that is Shangri La on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and you’ll be transfixed by a technicolour display of Islamic and Indian architecture that is tear-jerkingly beautiful. So if you’ve arrived in Oahu looking for paradise but haven’t yet found it… well, the name says it all, doesn’t it? Not to mention, beyond the house’s incredible beauty is a fascinating tale.

Shangri La is the former home of American heiress Doris Duke, whose father founded the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company. She grew up in a world of wealth and privilege between New York City and New Jersey, but as a woman ahead of her time, she was independently-minded and determined not to be defined by her wealth or to be confined by social expectations.

Throughout her life Duke was a patron of the performing arts, an environmentalist, historic preservationist and philanthropist interested in the welfare of women and children, education, social work and mental health. At just 22 she founded Independent Aid (which later became the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and continues today). During World War II she enlisted and worked as a reporter for the International News Service in Italy, filing articles on topics such as the losses and damage to Italian historical monuments and art objects during the war.

Her honeymoon travels through the Middle East and South Asia in 1935 at the age of 21 profoundly opened her eyes beyond her privileged New York life, and she found herself deeply drawn to the people, cultures and places she encountered on her travels. It was during this time that her famous love again began: not necessarily with her husband, James Cromwell, but with Islamic art: “[She] has fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tile, with their lovely floral designs with some precious stones,” Cromwell reportedly wrote of his wife from India, where she first began to collect Islamic art.

She purchased jade objects with inlaid stones, Central Asian suzanis (embroideries), carpets and metalwork, and when the Cromwells purchased 4.9 acres at Ka‘alāwai on the south shore of O’ahu in 1937, they set to designing a home – the now famous Shangri La – that would marry her love of Islamic art and architecture with Hawai‘i’s tropical landscape. Returning to the Middle East that same year, the Cromwells spent six weeks travelling through Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Istanbul studying, filming and photographing historical architectural details that would inform Shangri La’s final design.

Long after the couple separated in 1940, Duke continued to collect and commission new work from living artisans in Morocco, Iran and Syria, and over the next 50 years she assembled a collection of more than 2,500 pieces of art, exhibiting it throughout her opulent Honolulu home, which she periodically renovated to accommodate the growing collection.

In her will, Doris Duke purposefully opened the doors to Shangri La by establishing the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to own and manage the site and collections and to “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture”. As a result, you can now take a guided tour of the spectacular Shangri La through the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Visit Shangri La for its magnificent, multicoloured and multi-dimensional beauty, as well as to learn about the global cultures of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, digital and educational initiatives, public tours and programs, and community partnerships. It continues to be an unfathomably beautiful interpretation of Islamic art and architecture, incorporating traditions from different cultures throughout the Islamic world… and its dramatic views of the Pacific and Diamond Head aren’t half bad, either.

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