THE PLAYHOUSE: Framed by Diamond Head, set beside the Pacific Ocean and flanked by coconut trees, the Playhouse captures Duke's pairing of Islamic art and architecture with the natural environment. The Playhouse was modeled on the Chihul Sutun, a royal pavilion built in 1647 in Isfahan, Iran. Duke and her advisor, Mary Crane, visited the site in 1938 and took detailed photographs to assist architect Marion Sims Wyeth with the design details. Here, Duke played piano, listened to music and practiced ballet.


Doris Duke made her personal vision
of paradise real at Shangri La

Do lamb and couscous Shangri La style

By Nadine Kam

In early 1979, Jin de Silva was ready to move from Sri Lanka to Melbourne, Australia, when he received a letter and an airline ticket to Hawaii from his sister, chef Kusuma Cooray.

There was a job waiting for him in Honolulu, she said, if he wanted it.

Trusting his sister's instinct, he decided it wouldn't hurt to check out the situation.

"When I walked through the doors, I said to myself, 'Oh, my God! What am I in for?'"

He had just crossed the threshold to Shangri La and met its owner, the heiress Doris Duke.

From that day forward, he became caretaker to the grounds and Duke. "I'm still taking care of her today," he says of his former employer, as he guards her legacy and reputation with a sense of honor and duty rarely seen in employee-employer relationships.

But Duke was not a typical employer.

Doris Duke

LET ME TELL you about the very rich. While the middle class and nouveau riche chase logos and the "right" pastimes to convey status to the "little people" and gatekeepers of high society, the rich need not broadcast their aspirations. They already own a large chunk of the world.

Ownership came early to Duke. She was 12 when her father, James Buchanan Duke, who had amassed wealth from tobacco and hydroelectric power industries, died in 1925.

"The Million Dollar Baby," as the press dubbed young Doris, inherited a fortune estimated at $30 million, wealth that gave her the freedom to pursue passions that would last a lifetime -- among them ballet (Martha Graham was one of her instructors at Shangri La), music (she was an accomplished jazz and gospel pianist) and Islamic art.

While others followed more traditional routes to respectability or profit in the art world by chasing after works by old masters, Duke had no need for public, academic or critical validation. She trusted her instincts, and without a financial concern, she was free to follow her heart.

DINING ROOM: In the 1960s, Duke renovated the Hawaiian-style dining room, which had aquariums built into the wall. She created an Islamic interior with a tented ceiling, incorporating a French Baccarat chandelier, a large 17th-century mosaic tile panel, an Ottoman-style fireplace and a low table from India. Floor-to-ceiling windows take full advantage of the ocean views.

"She bought what she liked. That's the luxury of the private collector," said Sharon Littlefield, curator for Shangri La and consulting curator of Islamic art for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation/Honolulu Academy of Arts. An exhibition inside the academy's newly open Gallery for Islamic Art features items from the academy collection and pieces from Duke's home, from rooms that are still being renovated, such as Duke's bedroom.

The viewer, in turn, has the luxury of seeing objects such as furniture and lamps, tile panels and fireplace surrounds, used in context as everyday items, rather than as sterile, glass-bound museum displays.

Littlefield, who earned her Ph.D. in Islamic art history at the University of Minnesota, has been cataloging the collection for three years and says more research and interpretation must be done before its place in art history can be determined. But she can identify with Duke's desire to surround herself with Islamic art. Like Duke, Littlefield was intrigued by Islamic art after seeing it for the first time as an art student.

LIVING ROOM: Wide-wale camel-colored corduroy and shag carpeting are not out of the '60s, but the late '30s when Shangri La was built. The fireplace came from the home of publisher William Randolph Hearst. The room opens at left to a view of the Playhouse. An Otis elevator system allowed a glass wall to descend into the basement, dissolving the separation between the indoors and outdoors.

"I found it beautiful and fascinating, and I wanted to learn more about it. It has a very immediate visual appeal, and I think that is what she responded to when she encountered it."

Duke discovered Islamic art at age 23 on a round-the-world honeymoon with her first husband, James Cromwell. She fell in love with Indian Mughal architecture and immediately commissioned a marble bedroom and bathroom suite that would mimic these forms, intended for a house she planned to build in Florida.

Later on the tour, she made another stop that would change her life. A brief stop in Honolulu turned into a four-month stay, and a year later Duke bought five acres at Kaalawai at the base of Diamond Head, where she built Shangri La to accommodate her Mughal bedroom and bathroom.

"Hawaii was a revelation to her," said Shangri La Executive Director Deborah Pope. "It was a place where she could enjoy a tremendous amount of privacy, and it appealed to her love of the natural environment. She could look around from any point and not see a neighbor.

"She loved the ocean, and I don't think many people know she was perhaps one of the first accomplished women surfers."

Water figures prominently on the premises. There are indoor and garden fountains, a pool and a small boat berth. And, of course, a striking view of the ocean from the dining room where she entertained guests.

TURKISH ROOM: Painted wood panels, doors, niches and other architectural fragments came from a 19th-century home formerly owned by the Quwwatli family in Damascus, Syria. Duke and her staff designed and cut the marble for the patterned floor.

Jin de Silva said Duke swam in her pool every morning and evening -- often joined by her menagerie including 12 German shepherds, two Great Danes and two St. Bernards -- when she was here, adding: "She never missed a sunset. Even if she was sick in bed, she'd get up to watch it."

CONSTRUCTION ON Shangri La started in 1936 and ended in 1938, but Duke continued to incorporate Islamic art into Shangri La for the rest of her life. When she realized that the use and value of her estate could benefit the public, she modified her will in 1965 to allow the home to be open to the public for the study of Islamic art and culture.

Duke died in 1993, and her home will finally open to the public on Wednesday. While security features have been added to the premises, Pope said every effort has been made to retain the ambience of a private home, rather than a museum.

"It's still very much Doris Duke's home," said Pope, adding that curators were helped by the fact that Duke understood the importance of upkeep and kept large quantities of replacement fabrics and tiles.

Visitors will be able to step into the living room where Duke greeted guests in a plush, "Austin Powers"-worthy display of chenille shag carpeting and camel-colored wide-wale corduroy upholstery accented by pillows in hues of mustard, sienna and orange. Shades of the '60s, it would seem, until one realizes it was from Duke's Camel Period of the late '30s, created immediately after her global tour.

Duke described her home as a "Near Eastern" house. Its Spanish-Moorish design features windowless walls that offer no clues to the treasures inside. A plain, colorless entry is marked by an Arabic inscription that translates to "Enter herein in peace and security."

BABY TURKISH ROOM: Duke installed a Persian silk carpet, ceramics and textiles from the Ottoman empire, hanging colored lamps and a wall-size hanging from North Africa. The room once housed a billiards table.

Once inside, visitors are greeted by a kaleidoscope of color and light from small back-lighted stained-glass images that cast color patterns on the sandstone floors that change throughout the day.

"You could see that Doris Duke was clearly drawn to pattern and play of light and symmetry," said Littlefield.

Pierced metal lamp posts and hanging lanterns allow light to pass through the metal so that the posts glow from within.

The entry leads to an open courtyard, one of several areas that blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. And from anywhere in the home there are vistas, whether of the ocean, Diamond Head or lavish gardens.

Another striking feature is Duke's re-creation of a Mughal garden patterned after the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, Pakistan. Again, an unobtrusive door opens to this narrow magic garden of water, cypress and citrus that stretches hundreds of yards, echoing imagery from a carpet in the Baby Turkish Room, which was once used as a billiards room.

All around the house are fine works such as these ceramic pieces in the mihrab room.

DUKE, AS IT TURNED out, was a hands-on homeowner, climbing a ladder to a three-story scaffolding to clean tile murals in the courtyard, and restoring pieces of tile and glass on her dining room table, with Zen-like concentration, according to de Silva.

"She wanted silence because she wanted to concentrate on what she was doing," de Silva said.

Often, they would work side by side, de Silva cutting marble to her specifications while she placed the pieces and plotted her next move. It took them 3 1/2 years to complete the floor design of the Turkish Room this way.

Sometimes he didn't comprehend her vision until a work was completed. "It was only after the work was done that I could see the brilliance in her mind."

To her last days, she was still working on the house. In one of his last conversations with Duke, de Silva said he was about to install a piece of tile that would complete a design just outside the dining room, but Duke asked him to wait until she returned from her travels.

"She was going to Holland for a flower festival and stop in the Middle East where she felt she would pick up a tile perfect for that spot. And that was the last time I saw her."

Duke fell ill and died at her Beverly Hills home Falcon's Lair in October 1993, unleashing a torrent of tabloid scandal said to have involved a scheming doctor and gold-digging butler who were with her at the end.

MUGHAL GARDEN: Taking her cue from Shalimar Garden in Lahore, Pakistan, Duke designed a long, narrow pathway with a water channel running down the center, patterned brickwork and plantings of cypress and citrus.

All's quiet now, just as it was when Duke spent time at Shangri La. She had never been one to throw lavish parties, instead inviting small groups of people to her home, including Rudolf Nureyev, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, Elizabeth Taylor and Quincy Jones, according to de Silva.

For a long time after Duke's death, de Silva said he felt empty as he continued to go about his chores in the home. In her will she had made a provision to care for him, which he learned of only after her death.

"I had no way of thanking her, and that was part of the empty feeling I had. But now I see her home is being taken care of nicely, following exactly what Miss Duke wanted, and I'm a very happy man.

"In my way of thinking, my being here and talking to the public is one way I can thank her.

"She was a sweet, fine, quiet lady because that's how she was brought up, and as a rule, Miss Duke didn't want the public to know about her. But everyone should come and enjoy Shangri La for the simple reason that she left all of this for the public."

Now 74, he said, "I'm lucky to be alive and see this is happening."

Shangri La tours

Allow 2 1/2 hours to visit paradise:

Start: At Honolulu Academy of Arts' "Arts of the Islamic World" gallery for a video presentation and viewing
Proceed: Van shuttles to Shangri La run 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays.
Admission: $25 ($15 for kamaaina)
Call: 866-DUKE-TIX (385-3849)

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