Jali Pavilion, Shangri La

photo by: Linny Morris/Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

December 16, 2015

Doris Duke's Shangri La: A Unique Gem in Hawaii

  • By: Meghan Drueding

Most people use their honeymoon to relax and lie on a beach. Doris Duke used hers as a springboard for her lifelong fascination with Islamic art and cultures. After their marriage in 1935, the tobacco heiress and her husband James Cromwell traveled to Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and India.

“Those settings are clearly the onset of inspiration for her,” says Deborah Pope, executive director of Shangri La, Duke’s former home in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The 5-acre estate, completed in 1938, was directly inspired by the art and architecture Duke had seen on the trip. She hired society architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design the house and took follow-up trips to the Middle East and South Asia to further educate herself.

“The genius of the property and the house is that [Duke] is able to integrate this very Hawaiian sense of place with 1930s Modernist architecture and this overlay of detail from India, Syria, Iran, and Morocco, and yet it’s not disjointed,” Pope says. “It’s integrated in a very elegant way.”

When Duke died in 1993, her will mandated that Shangri La be used to promote the study and understanding of Islamic art and cultures. The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art undertook a master planning, preservation, and collection conservation project, and the property opened to the public for tours in 2002.

Shangri La also runs scholar-in-residence and artist-in-residence programs and hosts exhibitions at the Honolulu Museum of Art. In 2014 the house’s restored Mughal Suite, a marble bedroom and bath space commissioned by Duke on her honeymoon, opened to the public for the first time. Other jaw-dropping highlights include the Mughal Garden, which evokes the royal gardens of India from the 16th and 17th centuries; the Damascus Room, designed in the late Ottoman-period Syrian style; and the Jali Pavilion (shown at top), a marble-screened enclosure on the roof of the Mughal Suite.

If you’re interested in Shangri La but don’t have the wherewithal to get to Hawaii anytime soon, Rhode Island’s Newport Restoration Foundation (also founded by Doris Duke) is hosting an exhibition called Waterscapes: Islamic Architecture and Art from Doris Duke’s Shangri La from April 7 through November 6, 2016. And the NRF’s tenant-steward program is the focus of a feature story in the Winter 2016 issue of Preservation magazine.

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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