Ever Present

The iconic Ossipoff-designed Liljestrand home on Tantalus has lost none of its former glory.


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Dubbed the frank lloYd wright of warm-weather shelter, Vladimir Ossipoff changed the waY many residents aspired to live in Hawai‘i. His 60-year career in Hawai‘i included the design of major public spaces and more than a thousand homes. but no where else is his atmospheric use of dark woods, deep overhangs, oversized windows and huge sliding doors on more magnificent display than at the Liljestrand home on tantalus.

Located a thousand feet above honolulu on a magical acre of eucalyptus trees in 1952, the Liljestrand house still captures the vivid imagination of design enthusiasts more than six decades later. The house is recognized as an outstanding example of mid-20th century modern architecture and has both national and Hawai‘i landmark status.

Yet its creation began only after its architect and future owners made separate and unlikely journeys toward Hawai‘i.

Ossipoffwas born in Russia, raised in Japan, then educated at the University of California, Berkeley. afterwards, he arrived in Honolulu in the 1930s ripe to combine California’s modernist movement with Japanese craftsmanship and materials.

During the same period, Howard and Betty Liljestrand were en route to china when political turmoil forced them to relocate to Hawai‘i. Dr. Liljestrand became an o‘ahu plantation physician, housing his family in a then-remote aiea spot surrounded by miles of sugar cane, now the location of Alvah Scott school, before finding the tantalus site that became their home.

Betty Liljestrand later wrote in her notes: “we hiked through the hills admiring the changing views from one ridge to the next. here, land was relatively undeveloped.”

In stark contrast to the city below it, much of tantalus remains set aside as forest reserve, making the Liljestrand’s setting all the more dramatic today. The structure is rooted in the hillside but opens to views of the rainforest, city and ocean panorama around it.

Those perfectly framed views grew out of Ossipoff’s yearlong study of the location. his weekly site visits allowed the house to become organically grounded among the trees. every tree possible was left standing by curving in the lines of the master wing.

Ossipoff’s perfectionism was shared by Betty Liljestrand, who served as the home’s general contractor during its two years of construction. working with the two Japanese master craftsmen Ossipoff choose for the job, betty learned to say “wait” in Japanese whenever she saw work not to her liking. her son, Bob Liljestrand, recounts that she would then call Ossipoff, who was fluent in Japanese, and explain the problem.

“He’d get on the phone to the carpenters. mom soon learned to recognize the grumbled Japanese response, ‘here we go, tear it out.'”

The home’s four-year design and construction process paid off, with House Beautiful devoting 53 pages of coverage to the residence. “every family building a new house cherishes a dream of bringing together ordinary things like stone, wood, glass, concrete and pipe in such a way that these will add up to a whole that is greater than the obvious sum of the parts,” the magazine enthused. “when you sense every day that you are moving about within a piece of hollowed sculpture, you are experiencing one of the greatest values a house can give.”

In her personal notes. Betty described the sensation of being at home in a more modest voice.

“The view and weather are as much a part of this house as the walls and roof. The house keeps us in touch with the sea, sky, and things that grow.”

Though the house is virtually untouched since its creation, Howard and Betty’s children now work to create a future life for the house “beyond architecture frozen in time,” says bob.

“Preservation remains a prime part of mission, of course, but i believe a house must have life to survive. our tour program continues, we have visitors from all over the world, and demand is growing.”

Sixty-five years after its design, the house is a treasured location for special evening events, often with other non-profits. and with little wonder. as Betty Liljestrand wrote, “we knew we had a rare and magnificent site. we wanted to be able to sit inside, listen to good music and, with the lights dimmed, take full advantage of the fairy-like city below us.”

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