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Vol. 7, No. 3
June/July 2004


The Rise of Shangri La 

story by Paul Devlin Wood
color photos by Dana Edmunds

Doris Duke and her husband
James Cromwell pose by
Shangri La's Jali Pavilion
circa 1939.
Photo courtesy of the Doris
Duke Charitable Foundation
Archives, Duke Farms, Hillsborough,
NJ. Photo by Martin Munkacsi

When Doris Duke was twenty-three, she was twice struck by a kind of mental lightning. Her two revelations—glimpses of Paradise, really—took place on opposite sides of the globe. The first came in Agra, India, at that transcendent marble outburst of Islamic house craft known as the Taj Mahal. The second came in Hawai‘i, under the monument-like backdrop of Diamond Head. Duke spent the rest of her life, to the age of eighty, blending these two kinds of perfection—the hand-crafted beauty of Islamic design and the natural beauty of the O‘ahu shoreline—into a single architectural work that she called "Shangri La."

Now, eleven years after Duke’s death, her self-made refuge Shangri La is open to public tours. It houses the fifth largest collection of Islamic art in the United States. For that reason alone, the Doris Duke Museum is a sensation, each room an intricate orchestration of floral and geometric patterns echoing each other in grilles, tiles, textiles, pierced metal lamps and colored glass, each room glowing in the pure light of polished marble, or resting in the shadowy warmth of wooden mosaic ceilings or winking with the sounds of splashing water. Every cranny in the place seems to be muttering a thought from the mind of Allah.

But the museum is more than its parts. It’s impossible to visit the place without also getting saturated with the spirit of its designer, the departed Ms. Duke. Her sensibility—her dream of a double Paradise—is woven into the house as intricately as the arabesque lines in any one of its numerous tile murals.

As collections manager Owen Moore pointed out when he walked me through Shangri La: "Everything you see was her design. She had all the resources of the world at her disposal. There is a quality to her artistic eye that we are appreciating more and more every day."

Duke’s fate was to be handed the responsibility—and the notoriety—of great wealth. Her father had founded the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, and he belonged to the East Coast aristocracy of the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Industrial Age. When he died, Doris, his primary beneficiary, was just twelve. The national press labeled her, rather unsympathetically, "the richest girl in the world."

The Turkish Room and smaller,
adjacent Baby Turkish Room
(pictured here) were originally
part of an ornate home in Damascus.
She married in 1935 and set out on an ocean liner for a ten-month honeymoon tour of the world. The marriage didn’t last much longer than the honeymoon, but the tour changed her life forever. After seeing the Taj Mahal, she immediately commissioned a marble bedroom and bathroom suite, a suite that included carved marble doorways, numerous jalis (lattice screens) and floral patterns of inlaid precious stones. She intended to install it in her husband’s Florida home. But on the way back, the couple stopped in Honolulu. They’d planned to stay for a couple of days; in fact, they stayed four months. Entranced, Duke returned soon after they left, bought 4.9 acres of coastline at Ka‘alawai (at Black Point, just south of Diamond Head) and hired some architects. The actual construction of Shangri La took two years and cost an unprecedented-for-the-time $1.4 million.

Duke’s decisions dominated every part of the design. As Owen Moore put it: "You could have a great idea, but if it wasn’t hers, it wasn’t flying."

The first architectural renderings sketched a mammoth fortress that turned its back to the sea. Duke had the edifice scaled down and turned open to nature. (Clearly, it was not the monumental brawn of the Taj Mahal that she admired; it was the delicacy of its interior spaces.) She made great use of pocket doors—combinations of solid glass and carved grilles that could be eased aside to eliminate the separation from nature. The most sensational of these is the all-glass west wall of the living room, facing Diamond Head. Push a button and the entire wall lowers itself into the basement, allowing guests to stroll directly out onto a seaside lawn, past the private harbor, down to the seventy-five-foot-long saltwater swimming pool (where Errol Flynn once drank mai tais while watching Duke Kahanamoku jackknife off the diving board), and on to The Playhouse, which is modeled after a seventeenth-century royal pavilion in Isfahan, Iran.... Ah, well. It’s easy to get carried away at Shangri La. The point is that the entire house can be tuned like an instrument to the shifting moods of the Hawaiian weather. In a thousand ways, Duke captured correlations between the art and the land she loved. The turquoise of an urn echoes a glimpse of the sky. A tree depicted in a tile mural mimics the trunk of a golden shower tree that dominates the central courtyard. The entire sprawling 15,000-square-foot composition proves Duke’s unique theme: that Islamic culture resonates with the spirit of the Islands.

Shangri La's living room.

Nothing about the house is accidental or unconsidered. As early as 1937, during initial construction, landscape designer Robert Thompson remarked that Duke "was constantly on the job and took great interest in every tree, every leaf, twig, shrub.... I have never seen a girl take the interest that she did, and she knew what she wanted."

Duke willingly went to far parts of the world to get what she wanted: India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Istanbul, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. In nearly sixty years of searching, she purchased about 3,500 objects for Shangri La. She collected an amazing diversity of media: wood, paper, precious stone, glass, ceramic, metal and fiber. No stickler for antiquities, she freely commissioned new works, bought "off the rack" and had artisans reproduce pieces when more were needed. And she never stopped. In the early 1980s, at the age of seventy, she undertook a major renovation that resulted in what’s called "The Turkish Room," a glittering environment dominated by carved and painted wood panels, a mosaic marble floor with a bold geometry of cream and brown hues and a four-spouted marble fountain. For this, Duke purchased the complete interior of a nineteenth-century Damascus room and had it shipped to Honolulu. She and her staff then set up a production line to restore every detail of the room. They also designed and cut new marble panels to complement the historic fragments she’d bought. You can’t call Duke a collector so much as an interactor.

The pool and Isfahan-
inspired Playhouse.
This point distinguishes Doris Duke from others who converted American industrial wealth into art acquisitions—J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and so on. They sought out Old Master paintings, valued them as investments and later gave their collections, with considerable fanfare, to prestigious museums. For the most part, Duke did not collect recognized masterpieces. Instead, she pursued her vision in a relatively obscure field of world art. She had a very different relationship with art. Rather than acquire what the world valued, she personalized a home. She made a statement, then left that statement for our consideration. Perhaps Shangri La is more a message than a museum.

To explain this point, let’s take a wild swing of the spotlight away from the building to the man who guided me through it—Owen Moore. Moore never knew Doris Duke. He was brought in "at the eleventh hour" to rescue the house from the relentless onslaught of sea salt and to oversee the replacement of corroded wiring and the magnifying-glass restoration of fraying textiles that "looked like exploded Brillo pads." At one point in the tour, Moore stopped to pick a dime-sized flake of salt crust from the face of some antique tile. "Maintaining a place like this is just unbelievable," he said.

Owen Moore

A cultural anthropologist, Moore is a charismatic man in his early fifties, with a shiny shaved dome and pointed beard flecked with a few white strands. His life has been an exploration of his own roots—he is part African-American, part native American—and his interest is in everything that could be ignored and forgotten by humanity. During college, he did field work on the Lakota Sioux reservations and with villagers in remote Colombia. He worked in Liberia for several years, and his time there included a stint as curator of the Liberian National Museum. For ten years he was collections manager at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, for whom he gathered artifacts in Haiti, Ethiopia and Mexico. He was doing archeological surveys on Kaho‘olawe when the call came from the Doris Duke Museum. "Honolulu is the meeting place," he said. "Like everything else, like me, Islamic art has come to Hawai‘i."

It could be coincidence that such a mind has been called to Duke’s house, but Moore certainly fits the spirit of the place. The primary impression one gets at Shangri La is not luxury so much as empathy. This empathy is consistent with Duke’s history of countless charitable gifts—countless because many were made anonymously. Her generosity gave us the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which screens new films from places as far-flung as Thailand and Iran. She left us her home. She left us a foundation to maintain that home and to use it for public betterment. To that end, the Shangri La staff is preparing to open the house for gatherings dedicated to Duke’s favorite causes, which include the arts, environmental protection, child abuse prevention, AIDS prevention and, of course, a greater understanding of Islamic culture.

I would call Doris Duke prophetic, especially on that last point. In 1935 few people would have guessed what we now see—the violent collision of Western and Muslim cultures, a collision that challenges us to expand our consciousness. It seems that the world has grown to need her museum.

Getting To Shangri La

Guided tours of Shangri La begin and end at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Plan ahead:

Tours are often sold-out a month in advance. Tour days: Wednesday through Saturday. Shangri La is closed in September.

Tickets are $25 for adults and children 12 and over; $20 to those with proof of Hawaii residency. For reservations,

call 1 866-DUKE-TIX or email shangrilatickets@honoluluacademy.org.