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The Liljestrand House, Honolulu

March 26, 2020

Before I even begin, gaze upon the photograph above. There is not a lick retouched, and it's just shot on my phone. The photograph is beautiful simply because the house, the site, EVERYTHING is breathtaking. That is the Liljestrand House in a nutshell.

The Liljestrand House is named for the owners, Howard and Betty Liljestrand who contracted with architect Vladimir Ossipoff on the design and construction of a new home. Howard was the son of medical missionaries and was born in China. Betty was from Iowa. After medical school, Howard and Betty were planning to meet his parents in China and assist in their medical missionary work. Their long ocean voyage to China aboard a ship made a layover in Honolulu. Due to ongoing conflicts in China, it was then that the couple decided to make Honolulu their home and raise a family.

Many areas of he mauna (the mountains) outside Honolulu were already booming with construction, but the Liljestrands found a small parcel of undeveloped land along Tantalus Drive. It was undeveloped as of yet because it did not have some of the amenities of town water and sewer that other parcels had, but the quiet plot was just right for Betty and Howard.

The Liljestrand's initial intent was to design the home themselves with a friend, but they quickly realized that they needed the assistance of an architect.

Vladimir Ossipoff shared several similarities of his formative years with Howard Liljestrand. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, Ossipoff's father became an attaché to Japan and the family settled into Japanese life - until the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. After the earthquake, Ossipoff's mother and siblings emigrated to the United States. On their trip, by boat, they made a layover in Honolulu. (Sound familiar?) Unlike the Liljestrand's, Ossipoff's family did not stay, eventually settling in California. In California, Ossipoff pursued his degree in architecture from Berkeley and in 1931 moved to Honolulu upon the urging of his college roommate. Ossipoff gained his architectural legs working for many different prominent firms in Hawaii before going out on his own in 1936.

Ten years later, in 1946, the Liljestrands and Ossipoff found each other, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Liljestrand House is located on a winding road off of another switchback road, Tantalus Drive. The drive looks almost prehistoric with plants and trees drooping down over the roadway. With the exception of paving and the dotting of various mailboxes along the route, it appears not to have changed much since it first became popular in the 1800s as a wagon train trail with a spectacular view. As you drive, you cannot see any of the homes that are nestled into the greenery away from the road.

Tantalus Drive
Tantalus Drive

As you drive down the entranceway to the house, you will probably see some chickens as well as some very interesting signage. (Oahu's wild chicken population is thriving, much to the chagrin of the locals who have a hard time sleeping with all of the cackling and cawing).

Wild chickens
Wild chickens
Cats and Chickens at Play Sign
This has to be one of my favorite signs ever. And yes, we did see both!
The front of the Liljestrand House
The front of the Liljestrand House

As you first drive up to the house, you notice how small, simple and unassuming the house is. A port cochere is on the front of the house, and the house is covered in dark wood siding making the long, low shape of the structure blend into its surroundings.

The roof pitch is low, but steep enough to quickly drain the water of the heavy rains often found in the mauna. The eaves are also very deep, allowing the windows to be open to catch the breezes as they roll down the mountain while keeping out any water.

Living room at the Liljestrand house
Living room with bleached redwood paneling.
Living Room
Living room at the Liljestrand house
Liljestrand living room
The leeward end of the home is covered in floor to ceiling windows to take in the majestic views.

You enter the Liljestrand house through a small foyer opening up to the living room. The living room has a grand piano and two separate seating areas. The walls that are not glass are made of vertical redwood, bleached to a light beige/gray color which allows the grain to pop. But it is not the living room itself that you notice at first, you are immediately drawn to the view.

It is no wonder that the Liljestrand's fell in love with this place.

Living room of the Liljestrand house
Another area of the living room anchored by a copper-hooded fireplace made with Roman brick
The view over the valley
The view over the valley, with Honolulu and Diamondhead in the distance

The dining room is immediately adjacent to the vaulted living room area, but with a lower ceiling, giving the room a cozy feel. It offers the same amazing vistas out towards the leeward side of the island and includes a doorway to exit to the deck which wraps around the south and east sides of the home.

Liljestrand dining room
The dining room of the Liljestrand House
Liljestrand Kitchen
Seven burner stove, stainless steel countertops, counter depth refrigerator? It's everything someone in 2020 would love.
Liljestrand kitchen
The kitchen with the laundry and pantry on the left

The kitchen is gorgeous mid-century while being up-to-date for a 2020 homeowner. The large island is built for entertaining (unusual for the 1950s) and features seven burners and a built-in stainless Thermador oven. The cabinets have dished, round pulls with a flat round backplate. Ossipoff designed the kitchen with Betty to include some unusual (for the time) amenities: a whole house vacuum with a sweeping outlet built into the toe kick, drawers that pull out to form steps to reach the upper cabinets, an office workspace with a lift built into the lower cabinet in order that Betty could swing her typewriter up and out. There was even a small eating area in the kitchen, although photographs in the kitchen show the Liljestrand children gathered on stools around the island.

Liljestrand kitchen
Liljestrand kitchen
Closeup of cabinets with pull-out steps
The cabinets are beautiful and were custom made for Betty
Pantry cabinet
Pantry cabinet presumably for onions and potatos

The west side of the house on the main level consists of two bedrooms for the children and a master bedroom. The corridor connecting them is accessed from the front foyer, behind a hidden door of the same bleached redwood as the rest of the home. The windows in the corridor bring additional light to the bedrooms. The small transoms above the windows can be opened (as shown here) to catch the breezes coming down off the mountain. There is no air conditioning in the Liljestrand house.

The bedrooms are all connected on the south side of the house by a covered balcony overlooking Honolulu.

West corridor to bedrooms
West corridor to bedrooms
Child's bedroom
The children's bedrooms at the Liljestrand House were converted into a lounge and an office after the children were grown.
Book in office
The title of the top book on the pile in the office, "If You're Thinking of Building"
Balcony connecting the bedrooms

The master bedroom and bath are located at the end of the house to the west. In plan, you would see that the house bends at an angle here, to avoid a stand of eucalyptus trees that were already on the site. There are many pieces of furniture in the house that were all built from the trunk of a Monkeypod tree that the Liljestrands found in the woods and hauled to the house. Several of the tables in the bedroom are made of this wood.

There are separate his and hers closets with touch-latches flanking the entry to the bathroom. There are also additional sitting areas in the bedroom, and the south side of the room opens completely with folding glass doors.

Master bedroom
The bed in the master bedroom sits at an angle to the wall overlooking the eucalyptus
Sitting area
Sitting area in the bedroom with side tables built of monkeypod wood
Bedroom balcony
Full glass bedroom doors fold open to access the balcony and views
The master bath has a separate tub and shower with a redwood countertop for the sink

Down a majestic 'hanging' stairwell from the living room is the lower level, a set of casual entertaining rooms. The first room is a family room, replete with overstuffed furniture and a billiard table. The walls of the rooms are glass and pocket completely away to allow the room to be an extension of the lawn outside.

The second room is even more open to the outside and was clearly a favorite for the children of the house. There is a ping-pong table and padded cantilevered couches that protrude from the wall. Even the joists in this area are painted a charming color scheme of green, gray and orange which matches the walls behind the couches.

Hanging stairwell to the lower level of the Liljestrand house
Family room
The downstairs family room spills out onto the lawn
Outdoor living
Open air family room
Can you imagine lying here and just taking in the view?
ping pong room
The children's mecca with ping-pong and fun colors

There is another tier of living at the Liljestrand house. One level lower than the lawn is the pool area. The Liljestrand's and Ossipoff made the terrain work for the house and not the opposite. Because of the privacy of this lower pool area, it is rumored that Betty enjoyed skinny dipping now and again.

The pool
The pool overlooking downtown Waikiki and Diamondhead
The house from the pool
The house from the pool deck

I cannot say enough about the architecture of this home. Because of designs like the Liljestrand house, Ossipoff eventually became known as the master of Hawaiian architecture. But even when this house was first built, it was celebrated for its mastery. In 1958 the home was featured in House Beautiful magazine as a Pace Setter House and it has had visitors in awe of its beauty ever since.

Contemplating the view

There are so many more photos that I have but didn't share. (Like the built-in stereo system in the living room!) This home is amazing, and you, too, can visit. The house is only open on certain days and times for tours, so be sure to check ahead.

In the meantime, you can see more glorious photos and read more here:

Perhaps most importantly, the house is now owned and run by the Liljestrand Foundation to preserve and protect its legacy for the years to come. If you are interested and financially able, the Foundation can use your support. Find out more here.

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