Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rediscovering Shangri-La: Doris Duke’s Middle Eastern Retreat, Part I

Doris Duke photographed by Cecil Beaton in the early 1930's; Used as a pool/guesthouse, Shangri La's "Playhouse" was patterned after a 17th-century royal pavilion in Esfahán, Iran.

On the lush island of Oahu there exists a sumptuous estate, housing one of the most spectacular collections of Middle Eastern art to be found in the United States. Yet up until recently very few had set eyes on this fabled property that seemed to be frozen in time. “For most Islamic art historians, Shangri La was a kind of rumor, a shadowy place everyone had heard about but few people had actually seen,” recalled Thomas Lentz, director of the Harvard University Art Museums.

The story of how this extraordinary collection came into being begins in 1935 when Doris Duke, “the richest girl in the world,” married James Cromwell. The couple set sail on a ten month, much-publicized round-the-world honeymoon with stops in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, India and Iran.

Duke’s master bedroom was ordered while she was on her honeymoon in India in 1935. Similar to many of the arts at Shangri La, the sliding marble screen panels are hybrids. Though she admired antiquities, Doris Duke was also a modernist. In the architectural elements she commissioned, Duke often requested modest adaptations of the ornate prototypes; Duke’s bath features white marble panels inlaid with flowers of jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, and other semiprecious stones. Sliding screens of carved marble fill the arched windows.

During the trip Duke would develop a passion for Islamic art. In Syria and Turkey, she became mesmerized by the ceramic tiles and ornaments decorating mosques and palaces. While in India, she fell in love with the Mogul splendors of the Taj Mahal, its carved white marble glowing softly in the Indian moonlight. Inspired by motifs she saw there, Duke immediately ordered a sumptuous marble bedroom-bathroom suite, inlaid with jade, malachite and lapis lazuli.

Duke also fell hard for the last stop on the honeymooners’ itinerary: Hawaii. By the time they left, the 22 year old Doris had made up her mind to create a Middle Eastern-inspired home of her own on Oahu. In a rare public statement, she explained her thinking in a 1947 article for Town & Country: “The idea of building a Near Eastern house in Honolulu must seem fantastic to many,” she wrote. “But precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawaii and decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bathroom, planned for another house, was being completed for me in India, so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawaii and build a house around it.”

Doris Duke with her husband James Cromwell, in 1939 at Shangri La; Shangri La’s “Turkish Room” is composed of inlaid and painted-wood architectural elements from a historic house in Damascus, Syria.

Back then, before jetliners and even statehood, Hawaii was beyond the wallet of all but the fabulously wealthy, and after settling on a five acre oceanfront property tucked into an upscale Honolulu neighborhood, Duke set in motion plans for her ultimate retreat. When it was completed in 1938 at a cost $1.4 million, it was the most expensive home ever built in Hawaii. She named it Shangri La, for the mythical Himalayan kingdom where no one grows old.

But instead of building a large ostentatious mansion, Duke directed Shangri La’s architect, Marion Sims Wyeth, to create a 14,000-square-foot one-storey house; its a plain facade offering not a single hint to the treasures waiting within.

Duke at her Shangri La estate in Honolulu, in a magenta silk Punjabi on a yellow-gold outdoor sofa shaded by a "banker" umbrella from India, Vogue 1966; Water cascades into a pool at Shangri La’s Mughal garden.

Next Doris went shopping. Advancing east from New York, she sent before her a team of archaeologists and designers who were charged with the singular task of creating the mother of all home décor lists. They had one theme to guide them: The Middle East. Yet despite this team of experts, Duke took the lead on most of the decorating choices, reproducing her favorite interiors from her travels with antiques, tiles and textiles from Syria, Turkey and Iran, as well as white marble from India. To dress up a courtyard wall, she custom-ordered reproduction tile mosaics from a workshop in Esfahán, Iran. While a studio in Morocco fabricated the ornately carved and painted wooden ceilings of her foyer and living room. Duke also imported entire rooms from original properties. The most impressive of these was an elaborate interior from a deteriorating 19th-century mansion in Damascus, once owned by a wealthy merchant family in the old city.

Images Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

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1 comment:

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