Vladimir Ossipoff and
The Liljestrand House

Designed by Vladimir Ossipoff and built for Betty and Howard Liljestrand, the Liljestrand House is an outstanding example of Mr. Ossipoff’s work and of mid-twentieth century Hawaiian modern architecture.

The Architect

Architect Vladimir Ossipoff was born in Vladivostok in 1907, raised in Japan where his father was the Russian military attaché to the emperor, and educated at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduation in 1931 he moved to Hawaii where he practiced architecture until his death in 1998. Today, the architectural community is celebrating Mr. Ossipoff and his work.

A retrospective exhibit, Hawaiian Modern: the Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, was assembled by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and was presented at the Academy from November 2007 through January 2008. In the fall of 2008 the exhibit moved to the Gallery at the Yale University School of Architecture. The opening in New Haven was complemented by a symposium at the AIA Headquarters in New York City. In the spring of 2009 the exhibit was featured at the German Museum of Architecture in Frankfurt. The opening in Germany was accompanied by a similar symposium.

A 287-page catalogue, also entitled Hawaiian Modern: the Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, and a film, True to Form, Vladimir Ossipoff Architect, accompanied the exhibit.

The Client

Betty and Howard Liljestrand arrived in Hawaii on December 14, 1937, on theS.S. President Coolidge. Betty was from Iowa and Howard had been raised in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Betty and Howard had planned to return to China after graduation from college and medical school, but China was in political chaos and they decided to hesitate in Hawaii. Howard completed his internship and Betty worked as a secretary in the x-ray department of The Queen’s Hospital while they waited for the situation in China to change. Soon, they realized that the situation would not change. Although Howard’s parents remained in China until 1949, the younger Liljestrands decided to stay in Hawaii and to build a house.

The Site

The Liljestrands spent ten years searching for a building site. They wanted something remote, yet close to town, schools, hospitals, and Howard’s work.

In China, Howard spent his summers at a mountain retreat where his father translated texts into Chinese while Howard and his three brothers roamed the country-side. Because of these summer experiences Howard was attracted to the mountains. Friends told him he was crazy. “The hills were cold, wet, mosquito infested, and over-run by centipedes.” Never-the-less, the Liljestrands searched the mountains for a building site.

The oldest hillside areas - Pacific, Alewa, St. Louis, and Maunalani Heights - were densely settled. Furthermore, none of these areas are as centrally located, as wooded, and as “park-like” as Mount Tantalus. Pu’u-ohi’a, as it is called in Hawaiian, had been given the name “Tantalus” by Punahou School students who, when hiking to the top, were “tantalized”; each time they cleared a ridge, another appeared. The Tantalus area was - and is - forest preserve, except for islands of fee simple land that had long ago been given by the King “to persons whom he especially wanted to please.” Tantalus had no city water, was sparsely settled, and, although largely unavailable, was reasonably priced.

Hiking in the Tantalus Hills one Saturday afternoon, the Liljestrands met Mr. Coulter, an elderly man enjoying the view. The Liljestrands returned often to visit Mr. Coulter and to enjoy stories of the early days on the mountain, including tales of “cottages available to the wanderer.”

Eventually, the Liljestrands asked about available land. Mr. Coulter owned the land where they had met, already had a home near-by, and offered to sell the parcel to them. A discussion of price ensued. Coulter offered the property for $2000; Howard said that was too little and offered $4000; but Coulter insisted and the property was purchased for $2000. Today, the Liljestrand House sits at the exact spot where Howard and Betty Liljestrand first met Mr. Coulter one Saturday in 1946.

The House

There was never a question about hiring an architect. As Howard explained, “we had a great appreciation for good design, but we could not produce it.” They called on several architects and visited a few homes. Vladimir Ossipoff and his work stood out above all others.

“His houses showed amazing versatility combined with an obvious attribute. They looked all well on the outside, as though in their locations, each belonged. We wanted an eagle’s nest on our promontory, controlled to fill our individual desires. We felt Mr. Ossipoff could design it for us. In the fascinating years that followed, we not only learned for the first time what it means to plan and build a house, but also… to have a profound respect for Mr. Ossipoff and his ready solutions to problems. Whether thickening a wall here, or thinning one there, or drawing the clean lines of a free form shape, we delighted in seeing him produce something that we could appreciate, but could not produce ourselves.”

“Val was a true artist. Furthermore, there was a lot of cookie cutter work being done here. Many architects had learned to provide that and, in fact, insisted on providing it. Val was willing to listen to a client who wanted something different.”

“We did not want a luxury house. In the way of a house we wanted nothing fancy, a mountain house it had to be.”

The Liljestrands had a brief list of requirements - principles that seem obvious today. They wanted “morning sun in the kitchen, no morning sun in the bedroom (Howard was a late sleeper), a single loaded corridor, views from every room, no rooms as passageways, lots of storage, a front door easily and naturally accessible, places where work can be left out, and a circular drive.”

Over the next few years there were many designs. One day when the Liljestrands walked into Mr. Ossipoff’s office with yet another long list of new ideas, Val asked, “Are we ever going to build this thing?”

They agreed to proceed with the basic rooms and to let the interior layouts develop as they went along. From Betty’s notes, “We can argue as well on the ground as we can on paper.”

Usually, there were only two carpenters, Japanese craftsmen, neither of whom spoke English. Betty Liljestrand served as general contractor, was on site daily, and, of course, spoke no Japanese.

Val, fluent in Japanese, had taught Betty to say “stop” which she did often. Then, she would telephone Val and explain the situation to him and Val would explain the situation to the Carpenters. She learned to recognize the grumbled Japanese response, “here we go, tear it out.”

The shell of the house with most of the built-in interiors was finished in 1952 and the Liljestrands moved in.

Recognition and Publication

Over the years the Liljestrand House has been recognized as an outstanding example of Mr. Ossipoff’s work. In the catalogue that accompanies the museum exhibit, Columbia University professor and architectural historian Kenneth Frampton writes, “In order to arrive at the essence of Ossipoff’s sophisticated eclecticism, we need to determine the elements from which it was variously compounded in the late 1940s and early 1950s, culminating in his Liljestrand House of 1952...” In the same book Dean Sakamoto, curator of the exhibit, editor of the book, and architect, writes, “The Liljestrand House was perhaps Ossipoff’s most intricate as well as his most widely publicized domestic commission.”

Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful, visited the house in 1953 and asked to publish it in the magazine’s Pace Setter, a special edition published every other year which devotes an entire issue to one home.

The house was unfurnished. Val wanted to do the interior work and to design much of the furniture, but didn’t have time. Further, he was not comfortable with interior work being done in Hawaii. He didn’t want what he called “Hollywood plush” or “Ming Horse Oriental”.

Betty Liljestrand had a friend, Hope Foote, who was head of Interior Design at the University of Washington. She had worked extensively with Portland, Oregon, architect, Pietro Belluschi, originally from Italy and winner of the 1972 AIA Gold Medal. Foote and Val met; Val was pleased with her; she agreed to take the job; and she and Val worked well together.

Val designed much of the free standing and all of the built in furniture. Interestingly, most of the furniture was mocked-up in cardboard before it was built. The furniture was built in Hawaii by Robert Ansteth.

The table in the conversation area of the living room is particularly interesting. Ossipoff asked Howard to find a guava branch with three points up and three points down. Val then made a butcher paper template of the top which was cut by Min Plastics. Val specified plastic because he did not want the greenish edge of glass.

Five years after Elizabeth Gordon had first visited House Beautiful devoted a cover and fifty-three pages to the house.

Almost fifty years after its publication in House Beautiful, the Liljestrand House appeared in Western Interiors and Design, on the cover of Metropolis, and in the book, The Hawaiian House Now. The Hawaii chapter of the AIA published a timeline of the twenty-six most important events in the history of Hawaiian architecture. The publication of the Liljestrand House in House Beautiful was listed. The Liljestrand House has been featured in articles in Hana Hou!, Hawaii, and Hawaii Interiors and Architecture, and was selected for the month of May in the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources 2008 calendar.

In 2007 and 2008, respectively, The Liljestrand House was listed on the Hawaii State and the United States National Registers of Historic Places.

In 2009, the Liljestrand House received a Preservation Award from the Historic Hawaii Foundation. In a letter to the Liljestrand Family the Historic Foundation called the house “one of the most, if not the most, intact historic structures in the state.” They also recognized that the furniture, built-in interiors, and contents - all designed or selected by the architect - remain in original condition; the architectural source materials - notes, memos, letters, drawings, materials lists, invoices, and even the building permit - exist; and that film and photos of the construction exist.

The Liljestrand Foundation

This combination of house, contents, and architectural documentation provides an unusual opportunity to study an architectural work and the process of its creation. Aware of this opportunity, the Liljestrand family has created the Liljestrand Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is to preserve the house and to make that preservation purposeful by opening the house to the public for tours and for charitable, cultural, and educational activities.

As a member of the Advisory Council to the University of Hawaii School of Architecture, Bob Liljestrand is developing educational programs for students in Hawaii and elsewhere.

The Foundation is assembling a book, a case study of architecture and architectural preservation. Betty Liljestrand wrote many letters to her parents. These letters beautifully and interestingly describe the Liljestrands lives from the moment they first saw Honolulu from the deck of a ship. Her verbal descriptions are illustrated by a collection of photos and film taken by Howard Liljestrand. Architecture is a product of its context; its time, its place, and the push and pull of the architect and client. Because of the extensive collection of letters, photos, and architectural source materials, the Foundation is able to document this context and to illustrate the architectural process. Also, drawing on its own experiences, the Foundation is able to document the economic, political, and social forces that make preservation difficult.

In the future, the Foundation hopes to create a scholarship program and an artist/scholar residence program.

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