For its founder, the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke, the Shangri La in Hawaii was more than a getaway. It was a canvas on which the intensely private woman could construct her own world.
At the five-acre site, situated on Oahu with majestic views of the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head, Duke fulfilled what she said was her life’s goal: the “creation and enjoyment” of “beauty.”
Built in 1938, the Shangri La — with its Mughal-style garden, resplendent Damascene parlor, and collection of ceramics, woodwork, and textiles from the Middle East and Central Asia — is a monument to one aesthetic of beauty Duke became enamored with: the arts and architecture of the Muslim world.
So how exactly did an early 20th-century American tobacco heiress, once described as “the richest girl in the world,” come to fall in love with Islamic art and architecture? The story begins with a journey across the world.
How Shangri La Came to Be
In 1936, at the age of 22, Doris Duke married businessman James Cromwell. For ten months, the newlyweds traveled the globe. Their destinations included China, Egypt, India, and Indonesia — all home to great civilizations.
Like countless others, Duke was completely taken by the Taj Mahal. Immediately after visiting the site, she commissioned the Delhi-based British architectural firm C.G. and F.B. Blomfield to construct a Mughal-style marble suite for her.
Duke originally intended for the Mughal bedroom and bathroom suite to be installed at El Mirasol, Cromwell’s Florida mansion. But an extended stay in Hawaii at the end of her honeymoon tour dramatically changed those plans.
Struck by the landscape and culture of Hawaii, Duke instead decided that the Mughal suite would be installed there and in an entirely new residence.
Duke wrote in 1947:
The idea of building a Near Eastern house in Honolulu may seem fantastic to many. But precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawaii and I decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bathroom planned for another house was being completed for me in India so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawaii and build a house around it.”
Doris Duke was a woman of extraordinary privilege. She possessed the means to transform her dreams into reality. And she had the luxury to adapt and reconstruct those realities based on her changing desires.
Duke purchased a five-acre oceanfront property just outside Diamond Head on the southern coast of Oahu. Over roughly two years, 150 workers labored to build the Shangri La. In 1938, at a cost of $1.4 million, the basic structure of the building was complete.
But Shangri La was always a work in progress. Duke told a friend that the construction of the Shangri La was: “Never finished, never. There was no such word as finished.”
Shangri La: A Mughal Suite Grows Into a Grand Pan-Islamic Estate
Shangri La, originally envisioned to house a Mughal-style bedroom and bathroom suite, evolved into a compound fusing modernist architecture with the styles of multiple Islamic civilizations, including the Spanish Umayyad, the Ottoman Syrian, and the Mughal. Duke would, in fact, call Shangri La a “Spanish-Moorish-Persian-Indian complex.”
Duke’s subsequent travels across the Muslim world shaped the hybrid nature of the Shangri La’s design and its vast collection of Islamic art and artifacts. Over the decades, Shangri La would take on a form of Islamic cosmopolitanism, reflecting the aesthetics from across the vast Muslim world, curated according to the particular tastes of a notable American woman.
The genesis for the Shangri La began with the idea of the Mughal Room. The suite’s white marble, jali screens, and jharoka-style fireplace mimick the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The ceilings of the Mughal suite’s bathroom reflect the influence of the sparkling muqarnas of the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Lahore, Pakistan, and other Mughal sites.
Shah Jahan’s influence also extends to the Shangri La’s exterior. In the 1950s, Duke constructed a Mughal-style garden, modeled after the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, constructed by Shah Jahan in the 17th century.
Mughal-style gardens at Shangri La as well as the now-defunct Duke Garden in New Jersey imitate many of the Shalimar Garden’s features, including its patterned brick pathways that adjoin canals fitted with fountains. Divided into four quadrants, they’re also charbagh gardens.
Duke would make many visits to the Muslim world. With each trip, the Shangri La’s design and contents would grow. During Shangri La’s construction in 1938, Duke traveled across the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt to acquire art and furniture for her home.
In the mid-1950s, after another trip to the Levant, Duke added what she called the Damascus Room, by acquiring from antiquities dealers Asfar & Sarkis a dismantled qa’a (a reception room for wealthy Syrian families) with ornate ‘ajami woodwork and metal leaf embellishments.
Shangri La is also filled with furniture, including mother-of-pearl bureaus, purchased from Asfar & Sarkis over the course of decades.
Another Syrian qa’a was purchased later in Duke’s life from the estate of Armenian American antiquities dealer Hagop Kevorkian. It was installed in what Duke called the “Turkish Room” and the “Baby Turkish Room.” They’ve since been appropriately renamed as the Syrian Room.
Much of the Syrian Room is said to have been sourced from a mansion of the aristocratic Quwwatli family of Damascus. Like the Damascus Room, Shangri La’s Syrian Room features an ‘ajami ceiling and a stained glass window. But it also boasts a masab (fountain) and a tazar (raised seating area) made of marble.
Another striking space in Shangri La is “The Playhouse.” Its exterior is modeled after the Chehel Sotoun, the 17th-century pavilion built by Safavid ruler Shah Abbas II in Isfahan, Iran, which Duke visited in 1938. Its Safavid-era exterior is paired with an interior featuring a stunning wood ceiling crafted by René Martin’s Moroccan workshop.
Doris Duke’s Legacy
Duke’s travels to the Muslim world began when she was in her 20s and continued into the latter end of her life. Visits to Morocco, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan in her 70s resulted in the addition of suzanis and other fine crafts to her collection, which had come to run into the thousands.
Given the scale of Duke’s collection, it is no surprise that her winter retreat became a museum upon her passing in 1993. The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design, as it is now known, and the Doris Duke Charitable Trust both promote an appreciation for Muslim cultures.
Doris Duke’s Shangri La is among the many sites across the United States that reflect an American’s fascination with the aesthetics of the Muslim world, often sparked by travel to the region. The Shangri La — like the Olana State Historic Site, the Untermyer Garden, and a host of other buildings and gardens across the United States — constitute a style that we call Islamic Americana.
The uninitiated have portrayed Duke’s Shangri La as the random of an eccentric heiress. But the site reflects Duke’s careful study of the aesthetics and ethos of the Muslim world and their adaptation in modern forms.
The Shangri La’s simple exterior and opulent interior reflect the ethos of the traditional Islamic architecture of the wealthy across the Muslim world. Duke also embraced the use of light and water in Islamic gardens, reflecting paradisical themes, while also incorporating electric candles in the illuminated niches (chini khanas).
In Mughal India, jali screens were traditionally fixed. But Duke made them movable at Shangri La. An independent woman, she repurposed them to control her own privacy on her own terms.
The Shangri La also includes other technological innovations, including a retractable glass wall made by the Otis Elevator Company and a hidden Capehart speaker system.
Doris Duke excelled at curating the diverse aesthetic traditions of Muslim civilizations. She embraced the Muslim world, absorbed much of its ethos, and made it her own.