Shangri La, one of Honolulu’s most unusual art experiences, is now offering the public regular access to its long-shuttered Damascus Room.
Considered one of Hawaii’s most architecturally significant homes, Shangri La was built in 1937 by tobacco heiress Doris Duke on the southern Oahu coastline, just east of Diamondhead. Today, the property houses an extraordinary collection of Islamic art assembled over Duke’s lifetime, a collection that includes a substantial amount of items acquired during her honeymoon in 1935.
Guided tours of the home have been available to visitors for years, in conjunction with the Honolulu Museum of Art, but it wasn’t until last summer that the famed Damascus Room was first opened to the public, following restoration work that began in 2004.
Acquired by Duke in the 1950s from dealers in Damascus, Syria, the room dates back to the 18th century and was installed at Shangri La as a guestroom. Featuring an elaborately painted and gilded wood ceiling, with similarly crafted wall panels, doors and cabinets, the Damascus Room is also decorated with cartouches adorned in gold calligraphy and an array of ceramics, silks, lamps and glassware from the region.
“The Damascus Room is a highlight of the Islamic art collection that Doris Duke assembled at Shangri La,” said Keelan Overton, Shangri La’s curator. “In this space, visitors can appreciate a hallmark technique of late Ottoman Syrian architectural decoration, ajami — the raised and painted, decorative surfaces that cover the walls and ceiling and characterize many of these rooms.”
Visitors are also encouraged to peruse an exhibit within the room outlining the history of its ornate interior and details of the painstaking conservation.
“Especially given the current civil unrest in Syria and reports of damage to cultural sites, we hope the Damascus Room will open a window on the country’s extraordinary cultural heritage, specifically the arts of 18th century Damascus,” said Deborah Pope, the executive director of Shangri La.
Two-and-a-half-hour guided tours of Shangri La begin at the Honolulu Museum of Art in downtown Honolulu, where a short film about Doris Duke is screened in the Islamic Art gallery, and must be booked in advance by phone or email through the museum’s website
Along with the extraordinary architecture, Islamic artwork, painstakingly manicured gardens and grounds, Shangri La boasts jaw-dropping views of Oahu’s south coast and Diamondhead.
Tickets are $25 for nonresidents and include roundtrip transportation between the museum and Shangri La.