Rick Kinsel’s restored 1973 Tropical Brutalist house originally belonged to its designer, architect Chip Detweiler.

photo by: Nodeth Vang

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2024

Restoring a Honolulu House to its Breezy, Minimalist Origins

From our interview with homeowner Rick Kinsel.

I’ve always been drawn to historic houses, houses by architects, and extreme architecture, and there are some great examples in Hawaiʻi. I looked for ages at houses before finding one. I was looking for a house that was historic, that had a historic designation already, so I wouldn’t have to do a big project or anything.

Houses from the 1960s and ’70s have always appealed to me. I attribute that to being a child of that time. I’m also an academic. I’m overly educated in Modernism, Minimalism and Brutalism, too. But I’d never heard of Tropical Brutalism until I went to Hawaiʻi, and it interested me. The houses in that style are big. They have open spaces. A lot of Modernist residences have tiny, tiny kitchens; tiny bathrooms; tiny stairwells, and that’s claustrophobic for me.

What’s different about Tropical Brutalism? That’s exactly what puzzled me and fascinated me about this house. It’s no ordinary house. Some of the windows are slanted. The floors are made of lava stone. It’s open to the elements of nature. This is Tropical Brutalism. You can’t close all of the windows—some of them just have screens and wood slats to help direct water away.

Today, people talk about this concept as passive architecture, taking as little from natural resources as you need to, being open to natural breezes if they exist. That kind of thing is one of the principles of Tropical Brutalism and Tropical Modernism, which are closely related.

Like I said, I didn’t want a project. I wanted a house that was a done deal, that was already listed as historic. But at the end, what it boiled down to was, the Detweiler house needed me and the architect needed me. Otherwise, it was going to be lost to history—not only the house but also the architect. He was on the cusp of being totally forgotten.

I didn’t know anything about Chip Detweiler. I had never heard the name. But I was able to get a lot of original material very quickly, such as original blueprints. I studied them very carefully, and the people whose names were on the blueprints were still living. I contacted them. And they were tremendous.

Owner Rick Kinsel.

photo by: Olivier Koning

Rick Kinsel restored his 1973 Tropical Brutalist house in Honolulu.

They were so thrilled that someone was interested, and before I bought the house, I understood that I could return it to Chip’s original vision and that would be worth doing. Any house an architect designed for themselves is always a very interesting thing, because it embodies their own principles without any client filtering them.

Chip made some incredible buildings, mostly commercial buildings. The two houses he made that represent his aesthetic the best are this house for himself and another house that was a model home for a development. You see in all of his projects that he is working out these ideas. They’re the same ideas in both houses, basically, like the huge open-screen windows that you can never close; they’re just open forever.

Dian Cleve, Detweiler’s former business and romantic partner, has been wonderful—my most important collaborator—and we have become good friends. She understood what I was trying to do. She saw the value in this project, which involved removing, at significant expense, all the costly improvements the past owners had done. They had sealed up all those windows, blocked up the open clerestory above, added all this supplemental lighting and built-ins and bookshelves. I took it all out. I took it all back to the original.

The kitchen is one of Kinsel’s favorite spaces.

photo by: Nodeth Vang

The kitchen is one of Kinsel’s favorite spaces.

The kitchen opens into a dining room with lava-stone floors underfoot.

photo by: Nodeth Vang

The kitchen opens into a dining room with lava-stone floors.

It seemed to me to be so smartly designed in the first place. I am a total Minimalist already. To me a blank wall is a serene and wonderful thing, and if you put something on it, that thing better be collectively equal to if not more than what was there before. I took away all the added light fixtures and went back to the original can lighting, and to me it seems like perfection. It was just so evident in Detweiler’s own designs that they had been so well considered. There’s nothing that’s unnecessary. There’s no trim on any walls or doors. There’s no moldings, no cornices. There’s nothing that’s ornamental. The materials are honest. They’re evident and they’re visible. The wood’s wood, the stone is stone, there’s concrete block and drywall. That’s it. Those are the elements.

With Dian’s help, also, I’ve been able to formalize this archive. The Detweiler archive is now a real thing. I have come to be the repository of a tremendous amount of this architect’s material. His professional papers, portfolios, drawings, project photographs, resumes, correspondence—even his checkbook, passport, and personal letters. I have all that. It just keeps coming. I have his original dishware and the decorative objects that were in this house. They’ve all been sent back to me by the people who had it.

It’s all stored. The garage is totally filled with this archival material. I’m cataloguing it with the help of two young women from a local high school—they’re in college now—Alana Shigekane and Julia Sojot. They’re going through everything. We’re cataloguing it properly and getting it on the website slowly. Without Dian’s help I would not have been able to do any of this, but now there’s a website about the house, detweilerhouse.org. Once I got that up, I proposed adding Chip to the archive of architects profiled at USModernist.org—which is a great resource on Modernist architects and designers—and he was accepted. This is all meaningful to me personally, and important to design history.

Angled windows let breezes into the double-height living room.

photo by: Nodeth Vang

Angled windows let breezes into the double-height living room.

A side view of the house.

photo by: Nodeth Vang

A side view of the house, which originally belonged to its designer, architect Chip Detweiler.

I bought the property in 2020, at the height of COVID lockdowns. I renovated, starting during COVID. It’s still ongoing. I need to replace the roof. It leaks, and I need to change out the solar panel system. It doesn’t work. And landscaping continues. I was my own contractor and I employed individuals to handle specific things with my own shoestring budget, so I had to really manage it myself.

My favorite things about the house are the Minimalist details and the lighting plan, but also being in the kitchen. It’s so cool to me. It’s like you’re in the treetops and it always reminds me of one of my favorite childhood movies, Swiss Family Robinson, where the family brought all their European gear up into the treetops.

It’s really been wonderful that people have loved seeing the house restored. They remember what it was like when it was fresh and new, with the bright blue garage door. That was the original color, and I’ve returned it to that. It’s meant to be the color of the deep ocean, which you see in the distance.

The recognition has all happened through organic connections and interested strangers. I’m thrilled that people are interested. It’s my hope and plan to get this home added to the National Register of Historic Places to help preserve it after I’m gone. A National Register listing would make anyone think twice about making any changes. I’m not going to live forever, and the house will certainly survive me. And when I’m gone, I just hope that it’s valued. It’s such a super-fun time capsule, offering a unique glimpse at this moment in American design in the Pacific.

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Reed Karaim, who grew up in North Dakota, is a freelance writer now living in Tucson, Ariz. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Architect, and U.S. News and World Report, among others.

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