To me, my mother's house in Honolulu is the height of luxury. It was built more than 50 years ago for $50,000 when my parents, both teachers, had reached some measure of success. It's one of those open-beamed redwood kama'aina homes with 1,500 square feet of living space - it seemed large at the time - and spacious lanais all around.
It sits on a hillside overlooking Koko Head with a view of the rising sun and the sea. For that alone, prowling Realtors tend to hand their cards to my mom "in case she ever wants to sell."
Fat chance. I'll inherit it and will never let it go, in large part for the garden. My parents designed the house and grounds themselves, in the days when people cared about gardens. Not like today when developers fill an entire lot with 5,000 square feet of living space and lay out rows of areca palms and a line of lauae and Hula Girl yellow hibiscus for landscaping.
No. My parents landscaped terraces with honeysuckle and alamanda and planted trees, tall, old, wonderful trees that rustle in the trades, whisper in the moonlight, and call to the birds.
Gardens were a prime value in the Hawaii of the '20s and '30s, back when the Big Five elite could afford around-the-clock gardeners. The great estates of Diamond Head, Nuuanu, Makiki and Manoa were still around when I grew up, and the grounds, not just the splendid mansions, were an emblem of wealth.
I picked up an old 1933 issue of Paradise of the Pacific the other day featuring some of these storied residences. "The home of Mr. and Mrs. George P. Cooke (think Molokai Ranch), with gardens of glorious beauty." "Delightfully cool and restful are the gardens of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Fagan (think Hana Ranch)."
I loved looking at photos of the colonnaded terrace of the Lester McCoy (think Honolulu parks board) home on Diamond Head, which overlooked a jungled path leading through a trellis to a secret garden. I liked the Charles Montague Cooke (think Castle & Cooke) home in Makiki, with its clipped shrubbery, water lily pond and private waterfall.
Kaluanui, the Makawao home of Ethel and Harry Baldwin (who ran Maui Agricultural Co. in Paia), was featured in the magazine as well. Pictures showed rose beds by the reflecting pool, a profusion of flowers and ferns around a birdbath in the circular courtyard and long views of the Mediterranean-style home and the great trees that shaded it.
Like her peers on Oahu, Ethel cared deeply about her gardens. She supervised the gardens' design personally, giving orders in duster and sun hat to Okamura and Matsumoto, the two full-time yardmen who lived on the property. Kaluanui, now the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center, was sparing in furniture, but lavish in flower arrangements, for which Ethel was known.
She loved to share cut flowers, and faithfully arranged them for services at Makawao Union Church, and meetings of the Maui Woman's Club. In a 1935 diary notation, Ethel "sent quantities of yellow plumeria, alamanda, white star jasmine, white dahlias, yellow canna, and African daisies, and long clusters new white vine [sic]" to a friend's wedding.
The great Maui horticulturist Jimmy Lindsay of Haiku named a new variety of hibiscus for Ethel Baldwin. I saw it once, a delicate ice-pink, almost white, in a corner of the front bed near the porte-cochere.
In Honolulu with Harry for the 1935 term of the Territorial Legislature, Ethel called on Dora Isenberg. "Beautiful indeed are the gardens of Mrs. Dora Isenberg." (Think Lihue Sugar Co.) She also visited Alice Spalding (a creator of the Honolulu Academy of Arts) and toured "her lovely grounds. The orchids in full bloom in the trees in the gulch were especially lovely. Mary Wallace and Martha joined us and we all had tea on the terrace."
I can't help it, I wish I was there.
When did we became people who fill our homes and hotels with square footage, not foliage? Do tourists no longer appreciate beautiful grounds? Do two-income families have no time to enjoy a yard? Or is it all just about maximizing profit? Good luck finding someone to come over and weed. Now, as a friend says, it's "blow and go." Wish I needed a full-time landscaper.
At our family home, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, I can hardly tell where the indoors ends and the garden begins. There she is, my precious 94-year-old mother, out there watering her orchids.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.