Paradise on Earth

Exhibition invites viewers into Doris Duke’s Hawaiian estate
September 19, 2013

By the time Doris Duke arrived in Hawaii, at the end of her honeymoon with James Cromwell in 1935, she had already begun planning a home in Palm Beach, Florida. Yet from the moment her feet hit the sand, Doris felt at home in the lush natural beauty and laidback rhythms of the remote territory. She also relished the quiet solitude the island offered. As the only daughter of James B. “Buck” Duke, Doris had inherited what would amount to $80 million from her father’s estate. Dubbed “The Richest Girl in the World” by the media, Doris was subjected to relentless (and often inaccurate) media coverage throughout her life.

Although she had traveled abroad with her parents as a child, the honeymoon itinerary took her to new destinations, including Egypt, Indonesia, China, and Japan. During a two-month stay in India, Doris became captivated with the Islamic art and architecture of the Taj Mahal. She commissioned a Delhi architectural firm to oversee the commission of a bedroom suite inspired by the famous Indian landmark.

Happy at home: Doris Duke at Shangri La in 1966, photographed by famed fashion photographer Horst for Vogue magazine. © 2013 Condé Nast. Photo by Horst. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Vogue, 11/1/1966. Used by permission.

The Hawaii stopover, originally planned for a few weeks, stretched into four months. By the time the couple sailed for the U.S. mainland on December 26, 1935, Doris had decided her new home would be not in Palm Beach, but in Hawaii. The following April, she purchased nearly five acres on the south shore of Oahu, with dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head. She commissioned architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design a 14,000-square-foot estate that would reflect Doris’ growing fascination with Islamic art and architecture, set in a pristine natural landscape.

“Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise” is a traveling exhibition of the architecture, landscape, and Islamic art from that Hawaiian home. On display at the Nasher Museum through December 29, the show provides an intoxicating glimpse into Doris’ evolving vision as a collector and designer. The most personal of her homes—which also included Duke Farms in Somerville, New Jersey, and Rough Point in Newport, Rhode Island— Shangri La also represents Doris coming into her own as an independent woman. Throughout the building of Shangri La, Doris was involved with every decision, instructing architects to redo particular details and questioning construction delays. She contacted Arthur Upham Pope, considered the leading Western scholar on Persian art and architecture, and asked him to put together a return trip to the Middle East so they could learn more about the history of the region and its architectural and cultural heritage. That 1938 trip took them to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The Shangri La exhibition includes photos, artwork, and furnishings purchased during this trip.

Worlds away: The view from the main house at Shangri La, Doris Duke’s Islamic-influenced estate. The Playhouse at Shangri La. © 2011 Tim Street-Porter. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Doris considered Shangri La a work in progress, renovating sections of the home and gardens and purchasing additional artwork from around the world. All together, Doris purchased approximately 2,500 objects for Shangri La, from medieval Persian tilework to leather saddles and a Bedouin-inspired tent. Her last major purchase for Shangri La was made in 1992, a year before she died.