Within La Pietra’s carefully manicured campus lies the vast collection of museum-worthy art.
The oldest manmade object on O‘ahu isn’t found at a museum but at an all-girls school on the slopes of Diamond Head.
A Roman sarcophagus dating back as far back as the third century can be found at La Pietra – Hawaii School for Girls in Honolulu, located near Diamond Head. How something like that ends up at a school all goes back to the man whose family lived at the estate, Walter F. Dillingham.
The Hawai‘i-born industrialist was CEO of Oahu Railway & Land Co. and Hawaiian Dredging Company during the early part of the 20th century. He married Louise Gaylord at Villa La Pietra, a Renaissance-era villa near Florence, Italy in 1910. Her uncle, antique dealer Arthur Acton owned the villa. Prior to her marriage, she would accompany him on trips to Europe and purchase artifacts of her own.
The home was designed by Chicago architect David Adler, who built several mansions for Chicago’s wealthy elite. The Dillinghams named it La Pietra to honor Louise’s uncle, but it is not a reproduction. Adler modeled it after several Italian properties including Villa Gambreia, Villa Aretino and Villa Medici.
Dillingham and his family moved into their home in 1922. Upon his death in 1962, Dillingham gifted the villa to Punahou School to be used as the President’s house, and the remaining property was given to his family and later sold. (Residential townhouses neighbor the school today.)
He bequeathed all the artwork on the property to the then-Honolulu Academy of Art. After the statues, urns, busts and other artifacts were removed, it held an auction at Kapi‘olani Park that lasted two weeks.
Punahou’s president elected not to live at the villa and it was used for staff housing until the Hawaii School for Girls bought it. Founded in 1964, the school held classes at Central Union Church until it moved to La Pietra in 1969, a name it would eventually adopt as its own. The villa was converted to a school building and additional classrooms and facilities were built over the next 16 years, all with the same aesthetic as the Dillingham home.
Throughout the school, one can find art almost everywhere: reliefs and statues, refurbished iron gates, an antique bell, a full-length mirror with gold frame, detailed paintings under the roof awnings. Some may be authentic, others replicas, but all likely centuries old.
“School administrators have to work with a budget, so people over the years have had to make decisions,” says Josh Watson, the school’s headmaster. “It’s a school, not a museum.” This has included painting over items instead of restoring them. The school has also had to modernize and meet building codes for a school, including adding a fire sprinkler system and air conditioning.
When the school opened, much of the art was scattered around O‘ahu due to the auction. Jack Gilmar, a longtime in- structor and sometimes headmaster for 33 years, set out to retrieve some of the items and by good luck and perseverance the school recovered much of it.
On a terrace overlooking Honolulu and the Wai‘anae range are four large urns perched on a wall. When Gilmar started at the school, the urns were in Manoa. The owner was moving to California and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to ship them. Since she bought them at the auction, she called La Pietra to see if they would like to repurchase them. Gilmar said yes and bought the urns for $100 each.
He asked if she had anything else from the auction. She also had statues and busts, but they were already in crates at the dock. She offered the items for $10,000 if he could get them at Honolulu Harbor before they shipped.
Gilmar told Ben Dillingham, son of Walter, about the find and the possibility of bringing them back to La Pietra. Ben wrote a check for $10,000 and Gilmar rushed down and found the pieces.
The auctioneers did not take much care with some items, and the original courtyard fountain was destroyed during its removal. Gilmar commissioned a new one built based on old photographs.
The sarcophagus, however, has not moved since Dillingham brought it onto the property. Through his construction company, he had the means to move the sarcophagus onto the property, which has Imperial Roman designs. School records say it’s carbon-dated to the first century. The auctioneers had a much tougher time taking it out because it could not fit through any of the property’s arches or gateways.
While at a museum, these items may be off-limits, they are certainly alive and students interact with them at the school. A fountain in the senior lounge was being used as a backpack and shoe holder on this writer’s visit. A bust may have seen more scratches for wear, but was overall still in good condition and admired by the student body.
While learning can happen in less beautiful environs, the headmaster believes it adds to the enrichment and ties current students to alumni and future pupils. “It’s a nice reminder that people before you wanted you to have beautiful surroundings,” Watson says.
The property is available for special events and wedding photos. Visit lapietra.edu for more info.