Perched on the southernmost tip of Oahu, Shangri La is Doris Duke’s gift to Hawaii and its people. A stunning architectural wonder, the home remains an extraordinary visual, tactile, and spiritual experience nearly 80 years after it was constructed. Built on a dynamic stretch of Honolulu coastline, the 14,000 square foot property is a hidden gem showcasing the finest Islamic art and architecture.
Doris Duke was the only child of tobacco and electrical energy mogul James Buchanan Duke, and his second wife Nanaline Holt Inman. Born in a 5th Avenue mansion in 1912, Duke lived a life of luxury and fame in New York City. Her fascination and interest in other cultures was cultivated when she started traveling to Europe with her mother and father in the early 1920s. At the young age of 12, her father passed away, and she inherited the bulk of his fortune as well as the family residences. In 1935, at the age of 22, Duke married James Cromwell, an aspiring politician and member of the affluent Stotesbury family.
During their honeymoon, the couple traveled to Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, India, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Hawaii. While in India, a visit to the Taj Mahal would prove to be the spark of Shangri La. Cromwell wrote his mother, “While we were in Agra Pete [Doris Duke] had fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tile, with their [sic] lovely floral designs with some precious stones.” It inspired Duke so much, that she commissioned the design and construction for a marble bedroom and bath suite based on traditional Mughal designs. The bedroom suite would be the cornerstone of a new house to be built at Cromwell’s mother’s Palm Beach estate, El Mirasol.
The Mughal Suite exterior was designed by Palm Beach-based architect Maurice Fatio, as the couple had already hired Francis B. Blomfield, a British architect they had met in India to design the interior. Blomfield commissioned the India Marble Works firm of Agra to create the marble pieces, which included 11 jalis set within architraves, flooring, border elements, a fireplace, and a bathtub. The white, yellow, and green marble (specified to be of the highest quality) followed Blomfield’s designs which drew inspiration straight from the Taj Mahal. With such a great order, the New York Post proclaimed that the Cromwells had saved India’s ancient art of marble-carving. The suite project would take a drastic change after the Cromwells arrived in Hawaii.
It was August of 1935 when the newlyweds arrived in Honolulu, the last stop of their 10-month-long honeymoon circumnavigating the globe. The planned two-week trip to the U.S. territory of Hawaii transformed into a four-month long love affair with the islands, its people and their culture.