"In one sense, Kahala is one of Oahu's most fertile sources of custom residential architecture. Many of its well-to-do residents pursue interesting, new architect-designed homes. But the neighborhood's high median income also makes it prone to McMansions."
Back to the Future
By Michael Keany
When this couple found an aging mid-century modern house in Kahala, they didn’t tear it down—they lovingly updated it. Turns out the 1950s are looking better than ever.
In one sense, Kahala is one of Oahu’s most fertile sources of custom residential architecture. Many of its well-to-do residents pursue interesting, new architect-designed homes. But the neighborhood’s high median income also makes it prone to McMansions—those glitzy, blue-roofed, dolphin-gated, hermetically sealed palaces that could just as well have been built in San Diego or Scottsdale.
These outsize newcomers are even more noticeable in a neighborhood that originally developed in the 1950s and ’60s under tight strictures from landowner Bishop Estate. Back then, leasehold provisions specified single-story homes, 25-foot setbacks from the street and 12-foot setbacks from each of the properties’ side borders. This ensured a cohesive feel for Kahala, and guided the sleek modern style being developed by influential Hawaii architects such as Vladimir Ossipoff, Ernie Hara and Frank Haines.
As leasehold Kahala properties converted to fee simple, the restrictions disappeared, opening the door for larger visions of luxury, but many still look back fondly on the mid-century modern look that once defined Kahala.
When Bill and Cindy Jarvis moved to Hawaii from Berkeley Hills, Calif., four years ago, they were looking for just that kind of 1950s ranch-style home. “I knew I wanted something single-story, with a horizontal, relaxed feel,” says Cindy. “Something that reminded me of my aunties’ and uncles’ houses when I would visit here as a child.”
Furthermore, they wanted the real thing, not a newly minted facsimile. The object of their search turned out to be harder than they expected to find—Cindy recalls investigating more than 80 homes—but when they walked into this Kahala house, it was obvious that they had found what they were looking for. “We instantly fell in love with it,” she says. “We didn’t even see the whole house, we just had this reaction to it.”
As it turned out, the house had a great pedigree—it had been designed and owned by noted Hawaii architect Frank Haines (Coincidentally, we recently spoke to Haines for our December issue in connection with the work he did for the new edition of Architecture in Hawaii.).
The house, completed in 1956, was a great example of the kind of low-profile, cleanly designed residential work Haines did in the 1950s before he turned his attention primarily to commercial architecture as a partner of local firm Architects Hawaii. As a bonus, the structure was in reasonably good shape; not too much termite damage, and recently re-roofed to boot.
The bones of the place were great, but the Jarvises did want to reconfigure and modernize it. Haines had expanded the house over the years to accommodate his growing family, and Bill and Cindy needed something that would more closely suit their life as a couple.
Architect Matthew Goyke of Green Sands Inc. says he jumped at the chance to renovate and update the house. “Those guys in the early ’50s were pretty exploratory, in terms of using what was available, reinterpreting the modern movements of the early 1900s with the new materials that were available,” he says.
In a sense, this remodel was a continuation of that spirit—the Jarvises tasked Goyke with maintaining the original feel of the place while incorporating materials more suited to the new millennium. “It was not hard at all to update this place,” Goyke says. “It’s a very modern-feeling home, thanks to the post-and-beam construction. The big design decision here was not to tear the house down. From that, everything else kind of flowed naturally.”
The largest changes, in fact, were functional ones. The look of the 1950s may be timeless, but a lot of other things have changed since then.
In its original ’56 layout, for example, the kitchen had a relatively isolated, galley-style design, with adjacent living quarters for a live-in maid. Par for the course in a custom home half-a-century ago, maybe, but not as useful these days, when the kitchen has become the de-facto meeting place and control center of the home.
Goyke converted the kitchen into a more open, social configuration, expanding the pass-through that looks out onto the lanai, and arranging the room around a small kitchen island. Open and social requires more space, of course, which Goyke obtained by extending out the kitchen and laundry room (the once-maid’s quarters) by six feet—a total gain of 187 square feet.
In addition to opening up the kitchen area, Goyke streamlined the flow throughout the house by replacing conventional wooden interior doors with sliding aluminum ones. “There were a lot of swinging doors, and they were just kind of an obstruction,” he says. “We pocketed the doors away, or had them slide along the wall and become part of the aesthetic. Now there’s all sorts of layering if you look through from one area to the next.”
In some cases, maintaining Haines’ minimalist style in the redesign took a lot of extra work. Take the ceiling, for example—one of the home’s most prominent design features. Exposed rafters are contrasted by cedar sheathing that boasts a distinctive combed finish. When it came time to expand the kitchen, the Jarvises discovered that combed cedar—once so in vogue—was no longer available. Undeterred, they commissioned a tool that could carve the desired texture into new cedar sheathing.
The decision to stay with an exposed ceiling also required some clever engineering to make the home more livable in sunny Kahala. “It would have helped the overall environmental, thermal qualities of the house if we had insulated the ceiling,” says Goyke. “But we didn’t want to cover up these exposed beams, in fact we wanted to accentuate them.”
To that end, Goyke installed several ventilated cupolas that allow hot air to escape naturally, while remaining low-profile and weather-proof.
Even the floors involved more work than meets the eye. The Jarvises ripped up all the carpeting and tiling throughout the house in favor of a chic, bare concrete look, but it turned out that the foundation slab, after 50 years, had shimmied and shifted subtly, rendering it not quite level. The contractor rectified the situation with a leveling coat of concrete ranging from a quarter-inch to an inch-and-a-half thick, and then another microtopping to give the floor an attractive finish.
In the end, Bill and Cindy were left with a house that remains very much in the spirit of Haines’ original vision. The entryway still leads directly into an open lanai area that overlooks the backyard and pool. The living room is still wide open, comprising little more than a roof and sliding glass.
They even got Haines’ seal of approval, inviting him over for dinner and a look-see once everything had been completed. Haines says he’s very happy with his former home’s new look. “So many of these new houses in Kahala are just irrelevant to the area,” he says. “You see these places with fabulous entryways that look as if you were going to drive up to them in a carriage. We had exactly the opposite philosophy when building our home, and this is very much in line with that.”
Architect: Green Sand Inc., 457-1360.
Contractor: Emery Construction Inc., 263-2218.