There’s a mountain on Oahu named for the Greek myth of Tantalus, for whom satisfaction was always just out of reach. The road up is winding, filled with switchbacks, hanging vines, and vistas where, on mild nights, couples linger in cars against the backdrop of Honolulu’s city lights.
Hidden amid wild avocado trees and the heart-shaped leaves of houseplants is a long driveway leading to a crystallized snapshot in time: the Liljestrand House, designed by architect Vladimir Ossipoff in 1948 and built for Betty and Howard Liljestrand in 1952 for $40,000 at the time.
Credited with adapting midcentury modern for the tropics, Ossipoff designed homes and buildings in Hawaii with certain shared features: Japanese carpentry and expertise, the strategic use of trade winds for cooling (he abhorred air conditioning), and the merging of outside and inside space.
This style, now known as Hawaiian Modern, is on display in the Liljestrand House, one of Oahu’s many historic homes — and one of the few that is open to visitors.
Others include the royal residences (Iolani Palace and Queen Emma Summer Palace); Hawaiian Mission Houses (such as Hawaii’s oldest Western-style house, built in 1821); Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu, which includes restored sugar plantation buildings; and Shangri-la, an ode to Islamic art and culture built by tobacco heiress Doris Duke in the 1930s.
The oldest hale — a traditional Native Hawaiian thatched house — is enshrined at the Bishop Museum, where it was built on site in 1902.
While these historic homes range in style and grandeur, each adds something to Oahu’s character.
The structures are attuned to their natural environment and add to the state’s sense of place, Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of Historic Hawaii Foundation says. “In Hawaii, of course, that’s all rooted in Native Hawaiian culture, local building materials.”
Builders often looked to the past for inspiration, she says. That includes using traditional features like pili grass thatching and rock walls made from local volcanic stone.
After Western contact, the architecture evolved to incorporate joinery, with techniques that came out of shipbuilding, Faulkner says, and skilled carpenters from Japan popularized pocket doors and single-wall construction. Missionaries brought whitewashing and fenced gardens; sugarcane and pineapple plantations popularized arts-and-crafts style bungalows, where workers lived.
“Hawaii starts to be this place where all of these traditions come together,” Faulkner says. “It really did form a unique style. Much of it is oriented to the trade winds and to take advantage of natural ventilation … to be light on the land, really.”
Hawaii is hard on preservationists. Between heat, wood rot, fire risk and termites, the islands cultivate the idea of impermanence. But the greatest threat is development, Faulkner says.
“Hawaii has exceptionally high land value and so there’s often pressure to redevelop — anything — to a more intense commercial use,” she says. “It takes a lot of commitment to say we’re going to keep something that’s important to us, even in the face of that kind of pressure.”
Remarkably little of Hawaii’s 20th-century architecture has been preserved, especially in urban areas, says William Chapman, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The mid-20th-century was a particularly harsh period for historic buildings in Honolulu, he says: “We lost a lot.” What's left is "probably two handfuls of buildings, dating back in time to the pre-territorial period, back to the 19th century.”
Developers use neglect as an excuse to tear down buildings, Chapman says. “Old-timers love to talk about the house being held together because the termites hold hands, right? I get sick of that.”
Manoa Heritage Center, created in 1996 by Sam and Mary Cooke, hopes to survive by making the transition from historic home to house museum.
Built in 1911 by architects Walter Emory and Marshall Webb in a half-timbered style that harks back to Tudor England, the home has a basalt rock foundation. The property also has an educational center, several gardens, and the last extant agricultural heiau in the area.
The heiau, a stone platform and traditional place of worship, sat in “benign neglect” for over 100 years, says Jenny Leung, the center’s cultural site manager. Stones fell into weeds. Rubber trees and night-blooming cereus grew in the cracks. Center staff worked with the Hawaii State Historic Preservation office on an archeological survey before removing foliage and restacking the stones.
Now, the heiau and gardens are open to visitors, more than half of whom are local schoolchildren, says Leung.
In three to five years, the center hopes to open the doors of the historic home itself to visitors, says Lisa Solomine, the executive director.
“It’s like building a museum from scratch,” she says. The closets still contain shopping boxes and old shoes, says Leung.
Community members across the state and beyond have offered help, Solomine says.
“Everyone who sets foot at the site, it’s almost like they sigh a breath of relief, and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s so peaceful and calm here.’”
At the Liljestrand House, people likewise come, fall in love, and want to help, says Kristi Cardozo, executive director. A donor sourced fabric to recover the midcentury sofas; a builder donated lumber to rebuild the deck, she says.
To reach the house, visitors drive up the dark, narrow mountain road hemmed in on both sides by foliage, before arriving, slightly carsick, slightly confused, at the low-slung residence with a modest roofline.
“The house slips out at you,” Cardozo says. “You come to the door and it’s dark, and you can’t see it.”
The entrance is constrained and understated, with a wall directly in front of the visitor. Moving through to the living room, the house suddenly opens up with wall-to-wall glass and views from Diamond Head to the ships of Honolulu Harbor and the sloping Waianae Mountains.
On Tantalus, satisfaction at last.