Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, October 6, 1998

The house that
Vladimir Ossipoff built

FOR 23 years my spirits were lifted almost every day by living in a house designed by Vladimir Ossipoff, who died last Thursday, aged 90.

In a Sept. 8 column I wrote about the attractiveness of First Hawaiian Bank's new Moiliili branch, how -- along with having good parking -- it seems to have stimulated business. I expressed hope the public benefit of good architecture can return the extra cost in added value. Walter Dods, CEO of First Hawaiian, says good design by a variety of architects has benefitted his company.

I testify today that Ossipoff's design of the home we lived in for 23 years improved our quality of life. He designed it in 1936, very close to the beginning of his distinguished career in Hawaii. The plans have number 13 on them. They marked the 13th of more than 1,000 structures from homes to airport terminals he eventually lent his creativity to.

My late wife and I bought it from its third set of owners in 1955. It cost $6,107 to build. We paid $25,000 including fixups, resold it in 1978 for $205,000. I hear our buyers got around $700,000 for it 10 years later as part of the dramatic appreciation of real estate prices in Hawaii.

Thereafter it was torn down and replaced by a concrete edifice that Ossipoff and I both felt bad about -- I more than he, since he was always looking forward and hadn't learned to love the place through living in it.

On a steep slope above Roosevelt High School, the lot was a challenge. Ossipoff sited the structure two-thirds of the way up the lot. This made for a steep driveway, but created privacy from the street through 13 plumeria trees he suggested for the front lawn. It afforded a more elevated view of Punchbowl and the Honolulu Harbor entrance and left room for a small patch of level backyard.

He made the living room of darkened natural redwood, grain showing, and peaked the ceiling over the center of the room, about 12 feet high running makai-mauka. He fronted it with a picture window framing the Punchbowl-harbor entrance view. It taught me the importance of a framed view over a borderless one. Make a frame with your first fingers and thumbs. Look through it at something interesting, and you may understand.

Daily we watched the changing colors from the sun's movement, saw sunsets, ships moving in and out of the harbor and airplanes departing from or arriving at Honolulu International Airport. The house "flowed" from a balcony in front of the picture window, through the living room, then through screens to a patio, to the level patch of backyard and to a sloping backdrop of garden and green grass on the rising slope.

Our daughter and son were born in 1956 and 1957. As they grew up it seemed desirable that they have separate bedrooms, but we had only two. Simple, I thought: We'll ask Val to add a third. Not so simple, though. He said any addition would ruin the angle of the roofline. And if someone else did it, it no longer would be an "Ossipoff House," a cachet that by then had value.

So we paid $35,000 for another house -- one that met our specifications. It had four bedrooms, was on a flat, quiet street for the kids to bike on, was near a good public school and shopping center.

BUT we couldn't get occupancy for several months. The interval woke us up to a crucial fact: We didn't like the new house. It was so drab compared to Ossipoff's creation.

So we sold it in 1962 for the same $35,000 we paid, meaning a loss of the commission and fees involved, and went on bended knee to Ossipoff to find a solution to our dilemma. His assistant, Al Rowland, found one.

By dropping the third bedroom several steps lower on the slope, the roofline -- which hardly anyone could see through the plumerias anyway -- would be preserved and Val could approve. We continued to live there until the kids were out of the nest and it seemed too big.

Val completed his last home, one in Kahala, last year. Now others will have to turn caterpillar ideas about what homes should be into butterflies.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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