A Great Mid-Century Modern House in Honolulu

Hawaiian Mountain High: House as Wonder Drug

The best houses don’t just stand there, they teach. They provide comfort and a sense of place while radiating ideas and discoveries and refreshment long after they’re built. That’s the case with the very progressive Howard and Betty

Liljestrand house in Honolulu of 1952, shown here with its circular driveway and drive-through carport (no awkward — and retrogressive! — backing out of a garage here) by the great modern Hawaiian architect Vladimir Ossipoff, which I visited with my wife last month. The family is meticulously preserving it as part of the Liljestrand Foundation, which has an excellent website about the house, and Bob Liljestrand, one of the children, led our wonderfully informative tour.

The site onTantalus Road is jungle mountainside high above the city, with a vividly cinematic panorama from Diamond Head on the east all the way across to

the airport and Pearl Harbor on the west. Howard was a doctor and Betty a nurse and they planned the design even more carefully than a surgical operation, taking years to settle on a final scheme even though, according to Bob: “they had a brief list of requirements – principles that seem obvious today. They wanted ‘morning sun in the kitchen, no morning sun in the bedroom (Howard was a late sleeper), a single loaded corridor, views from every room, no rooms as passageways, lots of storage, a front door easily and naturally accessible, places where work can be left out, and a circular drive.’” The process got a  little frustrating for Val, as he was known, because he finally said “Are we ever going to build this thing?” But it was worth the wait.

From the front there’s not hint of the lower story, which is actually a daylight

basement housing a second living room and a large recreation room/lanai (shown in the upper black and white photo) that opens to a broad lawn, which  extends across the slope, then around and down to the marvelous boomerang-

shaped pool that seems to dramatize the site’s contour lines. Now this is a pool to see as well as swim! (Liljestrand friends Robert and Catherine Thompson, contributed the landscape design.) Ossipoff deftly choreographs your journey

through the house: compressing and enclosing you at the entry with a low ceiling, then expanding and releasing you into the high ceiling-living room as shown above. The design is always pushing and pulling your gaze: out to the

landscape and into the room: the fireplace is not only a fireplace but an anchor

between two great vistas and also an elegant cantilevered hearth for sitting. The long porch off the bedroom wing is both an open-air corridor between bedrooms

and a series of sitting areas and resembles a traditional Japanese engawa, which blurs the line between inside and outside. (Ossipoff was raised in Japan before moving to Berkeley and studying architecture at the University of California.) He

also designed some of the furniture, like this rounded-triangle coffee table, which cooly combines the natural and the abstract. According to Bob: “Ossipoff asked Howard to find a guava branch with three points up and three points down. Val then made a butcher paper template of the top which was cut by Min Plastics.” Now that’s a dedicated client who goes bushwacking for the perfect table leg.

Betty had a lot to say about the details and actually oversaw the construction. The kitchen island, for example, is a monumental stainless steel cooktop

and also a storage paradise. And multifunctional built-in furniture — from side

tables that “do double duty” as desks to bookshelves that jut out to act as

tables. Even the stair rail leading down to the lanai from the living room

has been re-invented as a series of vertical and horizontals bars. In other words, in Val’s hands and with input from Howard and Betty, the house has become a finely tuned instrument, or a sort of mid-century modern research laboratory-for-contemporary-Hawaiian living. So here’s my prescription: Take one Ossipoff-Liljestrand with water at bedtime and call me in the morning. Next patient, please!

(Driveway, living room with piano, pool, and both black and white photos are courtesy Liljestrand Foundation. For more information about the architect see the excellent Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, edited by Dean Sakamoto, Yale, 2007)

2 responses to “A Great Mid-Century Modern House in Honolulu

  1. Liljestrand Bob

    Wonderful, Dan, thanks much! Hope all is well, Bob.

  2. What a wonderful house- so well integrated into wild jungle with views of city and sea. Best of all three. Was crazy about your comment re drive-through garage. So many terrible accidents, let alone twisted necks, because of need to back out of traditional designs. Drive through should be used more! Laura’s sister has one next door.

    Thanks for good photos and comments.

    STK

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