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Years of stories fill Liljestrand House

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Aside from its location on a promontory overlooking a wide swath of Oahu from Diamond Head to the airport, and aside from its beautiful Val Ossipoff design, the Liljestrand House midway up Tantalus is a house of stories.

One of the early ones involves a 10-year hunt in the late 1940s by Howard and Betty Liljestrand for just the right building site in the mountains that was close to town, schools, hospitals and Howard’s work as a plantation doctor. Howard grew up in China and to escape the summer heat he would hike in the cool mountains. It was on a hike on Tantalus with Betty that they met a man admiring the sunset. And after considerable negotiations and a land trade they had their 1-acre lot. It is spectacular.

They soon gave up on the idea of designing the house themselves, and after interviewing several architects, they wisely chose Vladimir “Val” Ossipoff. It could have been a disaster with the strong-willed Betty serving as general contractor and working with the equally strong-willed Ossipoff. But over the two years it took to design and build the house, they actually became good friends. Apparently, Ossipoff cherished working with the couple because his daughter, Valerie, said when her father came home happy, she knew he probably had been working with the Liljestrands.

Val Ossipoff was born in Russia in 1907. He spent most of his early years in Japan, but came to the United States to study architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He arrived in Hawaii in the 1930s, before the territory was repressed by the war years and before it started to blossom economically. An architect of great versatility, he left his mark on the islands with such iconic structures as the IBM Building, most of the main terminal at Honolulu Airport, the Pacific Club and many more commercial and government buildings, to say nothing of the hundreds of homes he designed throughout the islands.

His years in Japan served the client well in the building of Liljestrand. Apparently two Japanese carpenters were imported to work on the interior of the house. They spoke no English and Betty spoke no Japanese. But she was the general contractor and thus was on the site every day inspecting every detail. Periodically she would see the carpenters do something she didn’t like.  Ossipoff had taught her to say “matte” — wait — which she did often. In these situations, Betty would call Ossipoff, who was fluent in Japanese, and explain the situation; he would speak with the carpenters and that would resolve the problem. Even though it was in Japanese, Betty knew when the men said, “Here we go again, tear it out.”

Then there’s the monkeypod story that took place long before the Tantalus lot was selected or the home built. But later on that tree had a profound effect on the Tantalus house, as we’ll see. Bob Liljestrand, Howard and Betty’s son, tells how when he was growing up in Aiea, across the street from their house one day he saw workmen attempting to fell and burn a huge monkeypod tree “because it was messy.”

He told his father, who would have none of that destruction, and Howard rushed over to ask if he could have the whole, huge tree. Sure. After much hauling, the monkeypod ended up in the family’s yard. Years later, that monkeypod ended up as stair treads, shelving, door frames and a major feature of the master bedroom.

In a book titled “The Hawaiian House Now,” authors Malia Mattoch-McManus and Jeanjean Bower say, “Ossipoff visited the site every week during the two-year design process. His slow study of the site shows in the home’s grounded presence among the trees. Each room has a perfectly framed view, and every tree possible was left standing by (in one case) curving in the lines of the master bedroom wing. The structure seems nestled into the mountainside, yet open to the views of the rainforest, city and ocean that spread around it.”

The book also says, “The Betty and Howard Liljestrand residence is one of the purest examples of Ossipoff’s aesthetics. Built in 1952, the home has been left virtually unchanged since. Its dark woods, deep overhangs, oversized windows and huge sliding doors are textbook Ossipoff.”

Bob Liljestrand is a biologist who also has a master’s degree in architecture. It is in that role that he has overseen the preservation of the house. The family created a foundation some years ago to assure the preservation of the house, and to make the preservation purposeful by opening the house to tours and for charitable, cultural and educational activities. Bob has a strong connection to the UH School of Architecture and works with students from Hawaii and elsewhere. The house has been included in several doctoral dissertations.

Tours are offered by reservation. Contact Trudy at or call 537-3116.

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