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Behind the veil at Shangri La

Built in extravagant Islamic style, Doris Duke's 1930s Hawaii estate will soon be open for public tours.

October 27, 2002|Michele Kayal | Special to The Times

Honolulu — A single, jagged hole in the wall of the dining-room entryway bespeaks Doris Duke's devotion to Shangri La, a lavish, five-acre Islamic-style estate she built near Honolulu's Diamond Head. The tobacco heiress, who died in 1993, was awaiting just the right tile for that particular spot. She never found it.

Shangri La, which has been seldom seen, even in photographs, since it was finished in the late '30s, will offer its first public tours Nov. 6. The living room's glittering 13th century mihrab, the dining room's tent-like interior, the exuberant Turkish Room with its geometric fountain and Ottoman-era ceramics and the backyard "playhouse" modeled on a 17th century Iranian pavilion create the impression of a grand Middle Eastern palace.

The grandeur sometimes obscures the spectacular individual pieces in Duke's varied collection: Syrian chests inlaid with mother of pearl, ceramics from Moorish Spain, painted Moroccan ceilings, filigreed brass lamps from Egypt.

But what's never lost is that Shangri La was a home. It's easy to imagine flopping down on the living room's wide-wale corduroy sectional or watering the courtyard's multicolored bougainvillea, kept in black plastic pots, just as Duke left them.

Six daily tours, offered Wednesday through Saturday, are limited to 12 people each. They begin at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' refurbished gallery of Islamic art. Tickets are $25; reservations are required. Call (866) 385-3849 or visit (Children under 12 are not admitted.)

Shangri La is not the only new enticement for Honolulu art hounds. The Hawaii State Art Museum will open Nov. 3 at 250 S. Hotel St., across from the Capitol, as the permanent venue for the state's 5,000-piece collection by local artists.

The 12,000 square feet of gallery space will take on themes such as Hawaii's heritage, ethnic cultures and natural surroundings. Throughout the exhibits, the artwork, dating mostly from the 1960s to the present, draws on Western aesthetics, Hawaiian folk traditions and ethnically diverse sensibilities. They represent nearly 300 artists, including Tadashi Sato, John Young, Pegge Hopper and Herb Kane.

Since 1967, when it passed a law setting aside construction funds for art in public places, the state has spent $4.5 million gathering the work, organizers say.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It will normally be closed Sunday and Monday and holidays, but will be open Nov. 3, its inaugural day. Admission is free; on Nov. 3, there will be free, timed tickets.

An opening-day festival will feature free live music, dance and hands-on art activities throughout the Capitol district, plus free admission to nearly a dozen museums from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A trolley will run between the sites and can be picked up at 12 stops. For information, call (808) 586-0900 or visit


Michele Kayal is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.

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