Sunday, September 26, 2004


There are two fireplaces in the chalet-style main house that forms part of the 5.27-acre Sullivan Estate built by Foodland founder Maurice Sullivan, and renovated by current owner Alon Abady.

The bigger, the better

One man in Nuuanu and another
on the North Shore work to restore
mansions with notable local pedigrees

For many who aspire to homeownership, the Hawaii dream is a 1,700-square-foot house with three bedrooms, two baths, a two-car garage, a whirlpool tub, designer kitchen and, if you're lucky, a walk-in closet. The average price tag: $409,000, although that home can cost up to a million dollars in Kailua or Kahala.

Sure, it would be nice to have an extra bedroom for a growing family, his-and-her offices and a media room, but beyond that, how much space does anyone need to be comfortable?

Well, it's been said that the greatest luxuries are time and space, and while time is non-negotiable, Dave Dressel made sure he had plenty of the latter. For him, 30,000 square feet under roof feels "just right." In fact, he says, the only time his "Yellow Castle" in Nuuanu feels big is when he has to clean it, a task that takes a week, and he says not a day goes by when he's not dusting, polishing, clearing pathways of Nuuanu's post-rain moss or replacing a light bulb or two.

"Anyone who thinks they can own a big home and just let it go better think twice," he says of a process that can take up to eight hours a day. "I thought of calling a maid service, but I've lived here so long I know where the dust collects, and instead of telling someone, I'd just as soon do it myself," he said.

This aerial photo over the Sullivan Estate in Pupukea shows its multiple water works and several garages that once housed former owner Maurice Sullivan's collection of vintage automobiles. These days the garages are used as workout rooms and private offices.

Finding his big home was no accident. Dressel had studied castles since he was a boy growing up in a humble abode in Durham, N.C. Even then he was thinking big, collecting photos of castles and palaces he found in magazines such as National Geographic, making note of finishes and furnishings. He made up his mind to live in a castle. That posed a problem on Oahu where the only fitting structure is Iolani Palace, and that, for obvious reasons, is spoken for.

He found Lihiwai in 1980 after a 10-year search but did not know at the time that he had stumbled upon the biggest house ever built on Oahu. It had Iolani Palace beat by 3,000 square feet.

Dressel, who retired from the federal government, had invested wisely in real estate and sold a beachfront Kailua home to buy his "castle" for what was then a princely sum of $850,000. The house had been on the market for $1.3 million, but it wasn't much of a steal considering how much work needed to be done to restore it. Back then, he told his wife, Valaree, that it would take 20 years to renovate. Twenty-four years later, he still has three rooms with stained walls and peeling plaster left to go, after spending more than double the purchase price on restorations to maintain the home in 1920s style.

"I could have modernized the bathrooms, put in a Jacuzzi tub, but I didn't want that," Dressel said. "I wanted to keep it as a 1920s house. I grew up in a 1930s house, so it wasn't much different; I'm used to it."

LIHIWAI WAS THE home of George Robert Carter, the second territorial governor of Hawaii, and his wife, Eastman Kodak heiress Helen Strong Carter. Walking through Lihiwai's 40 rooms today, Dressel laughs as he notes Strong Carter's influence. "You can tell it was a woman who built it, because the ladies' powder room (at 170 square feet) is three times the size of the men's smoking room," he said.

The grand staircase at Lihiwai is accented with statues owner Dave Dressel shipped in from Thailand.

In stripping the paint on the closets to their original color, Dressel discovered a green-and-pink theme reflecting Strong Carter's favorite colors, but in a gender-defying twist, Dressel says, "Her dressing room was done in green, and the governor's became pink."

Strong Carter hated termites after the ravenous creatures destroyed her first island home, so Lihiwai has a double-door fumigation room for ridding furniture of termites. Dressel has since learned to furnish his home in Chinese rosewood and blackwood because all other wood adds up to a buffet for termites.

Like many families, the Carters kept a Christmas closet stocked with wrapping paper and ribbons. Dressel figured out the uses of most of the rooms and crannies but said, "Her grandson spent some time with me before he died and told me what everything is."

And there's quite an inventory. The house encompasses 40 rooms, some that once served as servants' quarters, where the ceilings reached only 9 feet, compared with 11 feet in the rest of the house. A flower-arranging room and luggage room were no bigger than today's walk-in closets. There is an elevator from the basement to the second story, plus a grand staircase and servant's staircase. The Carters employed 45 people -- 35 to tend the 10-acre grounds, which includes a pool filled naturally by a stream, and 10 within the house.

The courtyard at Lihiwai is accented with statues owner Dave Dressel shipped in from Thailand.

Strong Carter had teamed with Anna Rice Cooke to bring in New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to design the home, as well as the Honolulu Academy of Arts in similar Mission Revival style so popular in the 1920s West.

The house, on 10 acres, was completed in 1929, and the Carters moved into it in 1930. The governor died in 1933, and Strong Carter died in 1946 after leaving the house in the care of the government during World War II. The house was tended by relatives who opened it to military personnel for R&R in wartime.

After Strong Carter's death, the house was sold, and much of the grounds became a subdivision. Dressel owns two parcels, having bought the Carters' 4,000-square foot guest wing in 1983. But before Dressel bought the main home, its porte-cochere was chopped off to split it from a portion of the house owned by another family. A stone wall between the two parcels also divides what was once a grand circular driveway.

BEFORE BUYING the home, it had been used as a nursing home. Luckily, the basement was so big that unused fixtures were stored rather than thrown away, so Dressel was able to replace the hospital-like fluorescent lights with the original fixtures. He also found old photos that served as guides for restoring the home to what it looked like in the Carters' time.

The only room he did not have photos of was the kitchen, so while that was done in period style, it was modernized with Sub-Zero refrigerators and a Gaggenau range.

The men's smoking room, like many of the rooms in the home, are dressed in a mix of Chinese furniture made of wood unpalatable to termites, and European-style oil paintings.

Although it was size that attracted Dressel, who learned of the house's link to the Carters through neighbors after he moved in, he is proud of that provenance today. He had the home placed on the State and National Historic Registers, which, he says, "doesn't give me much in advantages, but it's one of the great buildings of Honolulu, and I'd like to see it preserved." Dressel dressed the home in classical art purchased abroad or at local auctions, but one thing he had to learn about living in a big house was decorating to scale.

"A piece of furniture that looked gigantic in the auction house would look like a night stand in one of the rooms," he said.

And, of course, there's that other fear when it comes to homes with a history, that of being unable to check every closet and under every bed for spirits that happen to take up residence.

"People have told me of a cleaning woman's ghost, and my wife swears she's heard women laughing and the cleaning woman's cart," Dressel said. "I don't believe in that sort of thing, but if ghosts exist they could be here. One thing I can't explain is there's one room upstairs that never gets dusty, that I almost never have to clean. It could be the cleaning lady doing her job."

FOR ALON ABADY, it's not the size of the house that matters, but the feeling of calm he experienced on the North Shore that led him to the original Sullivan Estate, built by late Foodland founder Maurice Sullivan on 5.27 acres in Pupukea.

"It truly has it all, from luxury to full seclusion to unparalleled views," said Abady, in town recently on one of his few visits to his island hideaway.

Lihiwai was home to Hawaii's second Territorial Governor George Robert Carter and his wife Eastman Kodak heiress Helen Strong Carter before Dave Dressel came along in 1980 and made it his castle.

The self-made real estate developer lives in Brentwood, Calif., and says, "I was raised in a big city, so for me, Hawaii represents a place of freedom, of nature, so I chose this place because of that."

The house itself is a mere 5,700 square feet -- a cottage by luxury standards -- but possesses a warm, kamaaina ambience rare in modern mansions. "I wanted a warm house, not one of those monstrosities that are overbuilt and overkill," he said.

The home, also called "The Elvis House" by some because the King can be counted among the many distinguished guests who have stayed on the property, has six bedrooms, 5 1/2 bathrooms, three fireplaces, a chef's kitchen and a master suite with sun deck and Roman bath. Also on the property is a 2,700-square-foot guest house with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, a fountain with cascading waterfalls and pool with 12-person Jacuzzi overlooking the ocean with a view from Kaena Point to Banzai Pipeline. Oh, and three goats named Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa Marie.

"There's enough square footage for privacy, but it doesn't overwhelm the property or take away from the Hawaii feel of the North Shore," Abady said. "It was just enough house for me."

He purchased it in 1999 when he thought he was ready to retire, but all was not perfect. After more than a decade of corporate ownership, the house was rundown. Brick pathways down the mountain slope to a waterfall were so overgrown that he did not know they existed. Hedges growing poolside were so tall he could not see the ocean.

"Initially I was going to tear it down, but I met with the Sullivan family, and their name holds so much character and integrity in the islands that I wanted to do whatever it took to bring it back to its original grandeur," Abady said. "I'm a developer by nature, so when I see someone build something of quality, I recognize that for him to have brought up all the materials -- that's not a small undertaking."

Neither was the restoration. "It was the toughest rehab I have ever done," Abady said. "It took a lot of funds and aggravation because it wasn't like building something new, where you can go in and pick your colors. I had to be able to blend the old with the new."

But the result is stunning, and that will be someone else's gain. Abady, at 34, says he realizes that his retirement plan was wishful thinking. "I need to work. I get too bored."

He has put the home on the market through Kahala Associates for $8.26 million.

"I didn't buy it for business reasons. If I did, I would have sold it a year and a half later, but I just don't get out here enough," Abady said. "It needs someone who can enjoy it, someone with kids, because it's ideal for families or someone in business who's high-stressed. When I come here I read, I take walks on the property. You can really isolate yourself.

"All the guests who come here tell me they feel sad when they have to leave because it has such a good energy.

"I really feel it's in a spiritual setting -- it's not just a beach house."

And his enjoyment of the property has little to do with size.

"A home needs to offer you something personal, reflecting your taste, where you can say, 'This is my place.' It can be an apartment. Just make it unique."



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