Diversity in Islamic Art at Shangri La

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Diversity in Islamic Art at Shangri La

“Islamic art dates from the 8th century to present day and pretty much encompasses the countries from southern Spain all the way to India, so Islamic art is very diverse,” said Barbara Buchman, taking cover from the bright sun in the shade of an 80-year-old banyan tree. “If you take away anything from my tour, that’s it. That Islamic art is very diverse.”

At the bottom of just another driveway in just another cul-de-sac in not-so-just-another neighborhood outside Waikiki, sits Shangri La. 

The home’s entrance looks simple enough with its low-slung, plain stucco façade, two brick steps leading to a wooden door adorned in some metalwork. But cross the threshold and after your eyes adjust to the foyer’s shadowy interior; it’s crystal clear that this one-time private home of Doris Duke is anything but just another home. 

Multi-year, Multi-million Dollar Project

It took $1.4 million of “the richest girl in the world’s” vast fortune to build Shangri La in the late 1930s, and it was, at the time, the most extensive residential project in what was then the Territory of Hawaii.

A closer look at that front door reveals an intricate metal design of geometric shapes and arabesques inspired by 12th century Egypt with calligraphy that, according to Barbara, translates to, “Enter therein in peace and security.” 

Barbara’s lesson of diversity makes itself immediately known in a foyer made up of six hundred Isnik tiles from Turkey; eighty-four colored-glass, Spanish style windows; inlaid mother of pearl chests from Syria and Turkey; hanging lanterns in the same metalwork design as the front door; a painted and inlaid cedar ceiling commissioned from a workshop in Morocco; and textiles of some sort of another. It’s a little hard to take in—the juxtaposition from outside to inside, light to dark and simple to complex.

Skeptical, Little, Rich Kid

Born in 1912, Doris Duke inherited some $80 million dollars, give or take, when her father died in 1924. She was 12 years old. Reputedly, his words to young Doris before his death were, “Trust no one,” advice she, apparently, took to heart as she changed her will on and off throughout her 80 years as friends and confidants moved in and out of her inner circle.

Duke was known as a tobacco heiress who liked to frolic but who feared the public spotlight. She was a beautiful, leggy blonde. The Paris Hilton of her day. She built Shangri La after a honeymoon tour of the world that included the Middle East, India, South Asia and wrapped in Hawaii. She was 22 in 1935 when she married James Cromwell and that RTW tour included a visit to the Taj Mahal, which inspired Duke to commission a marble bedroom and bathroom suite from an architectural firm in New Delhi that became the nucleus for her Hawaii house. Her marriage may have lasted only a few years, but the trip sparked a lifelong love for Islamic art and Hawaii. And, that was an interesting marriage.

Hawaiian Hideaway

In Hawaii, Duke was struck by Oahu’s natural beauty and relaxed outdoor lifestyle. It was a place, she discovered, where she could lead a private life in public spaces. Duke befriended the active Kahanamoku family who taught her to surf, paddle canoes, sail and play Hawaiian music. She and her husband extended their stay by four months and, then, shortly after their visit, she purchased a 4.9 parcel of oceanfront land behind Diamond Head.

American architect Marion Sims Wyeth worked with Duke, blending exquisite arts and architectural motifs from the Islamic world with Hawaii’s tropical landscape and dramatic ocean vistas. The estate includes a 14,000 square foot main house that was built around a central patio; the Playhouse, which has two guestrooms and a central living space and was modeled after a royal pavilion in Isfahan, Iran; a caretaker’s cottage; and a 75-foot swimming pool, water terraces and tropical gardens.

Duke and Cromwell headed back to Europe and the Middle East in 1938 on a four-month buying spree. In Paris, Duke commissioned numerous Moroccan pieces, including two carved and painted ceilings, doors, wooden grilles and screens, roofing tiles, furniture and design schemes for the living room. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, Duke took detailed photographs and made sketches of architectural features such as columns, capitals, painted ceilings and roof details. She purchased ceramics, antique tile panels, textiles, brass hanging lamps and commissioned large mosaic tile-works. Duke didn’t hesitate to mix cultures, artistic styles and eras. She furnished her home with antiques and artifacts alongside reproductions and modern interpretations throughout the connecting squares and rectangles of rooms that make up Shangri La.

The moniker Shangri La was most likely inspired by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933 and made into a movie in 1937. The name came to evoke a paradise on earth, a place whose location was unknown or kept secret, significant meaning for a rich woman whose life swirled with rumors of romantic dalliances, stories of an adult adopted daughter—and subsequent disowning—and plastic surgery at 79 years of age, and upon whose suspicious death, a butler gained control of a billion dollars, a slew of lawyers gathered and a series of lawsuits were filed.

Art in the Home

But we get ahead of ourselves. Back in the foyer, Barbara explained the rules: We were not allowed to take pictures, touch or lean on anything unless she gave the O.K. A guard followed our group to make sure we complied.

And, then, she started in about the art: 

“Isnik tiles from Turkey were famous for the color red, an exclusive color of the imperial courts where money was no object and wood—fuel—plentiful to raise the firing temperature required for that nice red color. But in Iranian tiles, you notice there is no red. It’s said that the Iranian word for turquoise translated in to bravery and, perhaps, that’s why turquoise—and yellow—were two very much favorite colors used in Iran. Tiles were made in family workshops where various dyes were secret recipes and guarded and the tile-making skill passed down from generation to generation.”

Modernistic American Design Meets Foreign Antiques & Artifacts

We moved into the open-ceiling courtyard, centered on a golden shower tree and an eight-pointed star fountain, adding the sound of splashing water to the sensory experience. 

Barbara shared: “Her basic architectural design for the house was modernistic, which was coming into vogue in the 1930s with Frank Lloyd Wright--basically a series of square blocks. After those structures were in place, it was a work in progress. Most of the major commissions for the house were started in 1938. This mosaic piece was inspired by one of two pieces the flank the entrance of a royal mosque in Iran.”


We moved into the living room. “Now, we get a real treat,” Barbara said. “For those of you who have been here before, you remember you were all kind of squished on that narrow carpet peering into the living room. Well, guess what? Now, we can actually go inside.”

Inside was an “Otis elevator window” the height and length of the side wall. Latticed screens, jalis, which recessed into the wall. Two seating areas, presents to the newlywed couple from James Cromwell’s mother. A fireplace purchased at a sale of William Randolph Hearst treasures. A coat of arms that was a gift from the Turkish ambassador to Duke’s father. Iranian doors from the 13th century inlaid with camel’s bone. “There were lots of camels around there—ready material,” Barbara said.

It’s about the Art not Religion

Clearly, one of Barbara’s favorite features in the house was the “Mihrab Room,” a nook of a room between the living and dining rooms. A mihrab is a recess or niche in a wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and, hence, the direction of prayer. Duke did not convert to Islam and did not orient her Mihrab in the direction of Mecca. She did situate it at the end of her long living room, giving it a prominent place for viewing.

“Sometime in the 12th century, mihrabs started becoming large, ornate pieces,” Barbara explained. “Ours is one of only six remaining lusterware mihrabs in the world and ours is definitely the largest—twelve-and-a-half feet tall with 70 lusterware tiles. Lusterware is the most expensive type of tile work to produce, because it requires a double firing. Just like anything the amount of time an effort you have to put into making things makes it more precious. This mihrab was originally situated in a shrine in Iran, but some time in the 18th century, a lot of tiles from shrines and mosques were pried off walls and sold. Miss Duke purchased this mihrab in the 1940s at an auction. She was bidding against the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The potter’s name appears in the corner and the date is 663 in the Islamic calendar which translates to 1265 in the Christian calendar. This mirahb is really, really unique.”

The dining room was redesigned in the 1960s to represent the tent culture of the Middle East, with textiles covering the walls and ceilings. A bit of Europe is represented, though, in the large Baccarat chandelier.

The Study and Understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture

Apart from details pertinent to the building of the house, we learned very little about Doris Duke and her life. Certainly not the more exotic ones. 

We did learn that in 1965, Duke modified her will to create the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts to manage Shangri La and to promote “the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture.” The will also directs that Shangri La be open to the public and shared with scholars and students. As such, Shangri La opened for small tours after her will was finally settled, some 9 years after her death, on November 6, 2002.

The thing is this tour is not about Doris Duke. For that, there are biographies, Hollywood films and made-for-TV movies. Shangri La today is not about Doris Duke. It is about Islamic art. And, that, in this celebrity frenzy world in which we live reinforced by People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and paparazzi hanging from helicopters is quite refreshing. Shangri La is about the art, people, not the, well, people. In that, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts achieves its mission.

Duke collected more than 3,500 objects over 60 years--diverse media, time periods, cultures and regions of the Islamic world juxtaposed in nearly every room. Many works of art are embedded into the structure of the house, revealing their original purpose and function.

For some, the words “intricate” and “complex” translates to “busy,” and you would be 100% accurate in describing Shangri La this way. The place is a total contradiction to Hawaii. After an hour-and-a-half inside the house, your first words upon stepping onto the lanai in the backyard might be, “Oh, look, there’s Diamond Head. I’d forgotten we were in Hawaii.” 

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