Honolulu’s Liljestrand House

Peter Shaindlin

Embroiled in a family saga, one of the most important pieces of midcentury architecture in Hawaii is in the fight of its life.

Most days, motorists on the H1 through Honolulu can look up at the cliffs of the Ko’olau mountain range and see a rainbow landing somewhere on Tantalus Mountain. There, overlooking the city, is the Pacific’s most important work of residential architecture, designed by Hawaii’s best-known architect, Vladimir Ossipoff. Rare for a great house, it remains in the hands of the family for whom it was built, the Liljestrands. More than 60 years later, the four heirs have resisted turning their childhood home into a pot of gold, but for how long?

“The Liljestrand House is Hawaii’s Fallingwater,” says Robert Saarnio, an architectural historian and director of the museum at the University of Mississippi. While the Frank Lloyd Wright commission outside Pittsburgh is the most exquisite house from one of modernism’s finest architects, Hawaii’s has had, perhaps, a greater impact on American domesticity.

Between 1946 and 1965, House Beautiful named 17 Pace Setter houses for the post–World War II years. The Liljestrand House was selected in 1958, commanding the cover and 53 pages of the magazine. Hawaii was still a territory, barely one year away from statehood, an island chain of pineapple plantations and sugar mills, with no-stoplight towns populated by Polynesians and Asian émigrés and visited by only a handful of tourists arriving via ocean liner. To construct a grand house then was an act of vision or folly, possibly both.

Great men erect monuments, doctors build houses. Howard Liljestrand, a Harvard-trained physician, and his wife, Betty, arrived in Oahu as honeymooners and medical missionaries en route to China in 1937, when the first stirrings of the coming Communist revolution delayed and, ultimately, diverted them. He worked at a plantation hospital near Pearl Harbor, and the couple raised four kids and commissioned a 6,700-square-foot dream house for $60,000. Today it is valued at between $10 million and $15 million, brokers say.

The Pace Setters were not designated to impress the fine-arts world but to translate high design for a postwar nuclear family. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses could be too dark, and Le Corbusier’s roofs leaked, but the Pace Setters were livable. The Liljestrand House typifies a romantic vision of midcentury life, with a kitchen that includes “work” stations for flower arranging, sewing, typing and gift wrapping. The living and dining rooms have an open plan for parties, with conversational seating areas for intimacy. Recreational activities are relegated to the downstairs—good, clean fun such as billiards, Ping-Pong and movie screenings. A kidney-shaped pool is right outside.

Campaigning in a self-proclaimed “war against ugliness,” Ossipoff’s design was celebrated nationally for the finesse with which he incorporated the mountain site’s elevations, for how he embraced Oahu’s panoramic views from Diamond Head to Ewa Beach and beyond, and for how he met his clients’ extensive requirements. (Betty’s wish list for the kitchen ran to 11 pages.) Ossipoff designed most of the furniture, including the dog beds. Working within the Hawaiian vernacular, he brought the outdoors in with floor-to-ceiling windows and natural ventilation. He used colloquial elements such as overhanging corrugated roofs and lanais, known on the mainland as patios. Ossipoff was the reigning dean of Hawaii’s modern architecture, designing the posh Outrigger Canoe Club and Pacific Club, as well as the Honolulu airport. His collaboration with the Liljestrands was a career pinnacle.

“The house will not become obsolete when the children have left it.” —House Beautiful, July 1958

A childhood venerated in 53 pages of a high-circulation national magazine is the kind of dubious honor bestowed on the offspring of presidents and royalty. To have been an emblem of American family life during the Eisenhower era seems to have cast a spell on the Liljestrands. Over lunch in the kitchen, a salad made from greens picked off the Tantalus grounds, two of Dr. Liljestrand’s children explain the family’s predicament.

When he died in 2004, Howard left no instructions for what to do with his home. He never said not to sell it. “Of course I think about what life would be like if we sold,” says Bob, the eldest son at 71, with mad-professor hair and the requisite aloha shirt. “But I’m never tempted.”

The Liljestrand House is suffering a long and awkward transition, moving from a theater for living to a commemorative art object. It has been mostly uninhabited since Howard’s death. Ossipoff’s interiors are obsessively preserved. So, too, is Howard’s decor: His Playboy pinups remain tacked to the walls in the basement, and his library features the Five-Foot Shelf from the Harvard Classics and the University of Chicago’s Great Books, touchstones of 1950s pop intellectualism.

In his retirement Bob has become the family’s archivist and the house’s curator. After graduating from architecture school in his late fifties, he spent three years in his father’s basement cataloguing and color-coding his papers. “I don’t even remember what the colored tabs mean anymore,” he jokes. In 2012, he sold his own home and moved into a three-sided garden shack on the property along with his girlfriend, Vicky Durand, a high school classmate and former world surfing champ, and their three dogs and 20 cats.

The youngest sibling, Wendla, 63, moved back to the family homestead two years ago. A former mental-health professional, she lives in a studio apartment below the main house. The two middle siblings, Eric, 64, a retired bush pilot in Hana, Maui, and Lana, 66, who lives in Texas, are less present but are, says Bob, “on the same page” about preserving the home.

It is a page that reads tentatively at best. The house is rented for parties and corporate events but is by no means self-supporting. For their meager accommodations, Bob and Wendla pay rent. Howard’s secretary, Trudy Couillard, has been on the payroll since his death and works as the house’s tour guide. Lana rarely returns to Hawaii from the mainland. There are five Liljestrand grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, none of whom grew up in the house or feel sentimental about it. The building and the grounds aren’t falling apart, but they are not in perfect repair. With utilities and Couillard’s salary costing up to $75,000 a year, capital maintenance gets overlooked. (They do save on taxes, paying $300 annually, courtesy of a tax break for historic buildings. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, though inclusion appears to offer little protection from sale.)

Bob is eager to broker a preservation agreement, citing the Greene & Greene–designed Gamble House in Pasadena as a model for public-private preservation: The city owns the house, the University of Southern California operates it, and the Procter & Gamble family trust has a voice in its curation. The Liljestrands, however, are not backed by a Procter & Gamble–sized corporate fortune and remain alone in their commitment.

“The house has become a member of the family,” says Bob.

“God save the house,” says Wendla.

Every family must reconcile with its own legacy, and in Hawaii, where traditions and culture have been shaped by ancestor worship, where property values are dizzying and where sublime architecture is all too rare, the Liljestrand inheritance is a heavy kuleana, or obligation. “This is why we have to settle what happens to this house,” says Bob. “So it doesn’t descend into chaos.”

For tours of the Liljestrand House, call 808-537-3116. The property is at 3300 Tantalus Dr.; theliljestrandhouse.com.