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Denby Fawcett: A ‘Squandered Opportunity’? UH Returns Charlot Home To Artist’s Family

Denby Fawcett: A 'Squandered Opportunity'? UH Returns Charlot Home To Artist's Family

Opinion article badgeThe University of Hawaii has given up its ownership of one of the most historically important houses in Hawaii: the residence of world famous muralist Jean Charlot.

On Thursday, the UH Board of Regents voted to return the midcentury modern home on Kahala Avenue officially known as the Jean and Zohmah Charlot House to the family of the late artist.

Historic Hawaii Foundation Executive Director Kiersten Faulkner said she’s disappointed the university is relinquishing the home, which she describes as “exquisite.”

“The university has squandered a priceless opportunity to use the intrinsic value of the Charlot House to further its educational goals,” says Faulkner.

Charlot’s grandson, David Charlot, accepting the return of the property for the family, said, “The university is doing what is right and honorable. We all recognize that owning this house has been challenging.”

He said the Charlot family lacks the financial resources to maintain the house by itself but is committed to finding new partners eager to preserve it and generate creative ways to make the Kahala property accessible to the public.

“We will do the best we can,” he said. “It is a challenge, but at the end, the objective is to preserve the house.”

Jean Charlot house.Jean Charlot house.
The children of artist Jean Charlot gave the house to UH in 2001. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Charlots’ adult children — Ann, John (David’s father) and Martin — gave the home to UH in 2001 after their mother Zohmah died in 2000 with the family stipulation that their home be maintained in perpetuity for residential and scholarly purposes related to the legacy of Jean Charlot.

After UH received the house, it placed responsibility for its care on the School of Architecture, which for the last two decades has tried dozens of ways to make it a valuable part of its education program, including using it as a residence for visiting faculty, a setting for seminars and student-faculty retreats, an instructional space for graduate design studios and opening the home for public tours and group events — everything short of selling it.

UH Chief Financial Officer Kalbert Young, in testimony to the Board of Regents’ Planning and Facilities Committee Thursday, said it has been “an uphill struggle” to fulfill the scholarly mission the Charlots saw for the house while at the same time generating enough money to pay for continuing and often expensive maintenance costs.

UH estimates it would take up to $2 million to restore the unique property and also to pay for improvements needed to make it commercially viable in the future.

View of the master bedroom of Jean Charlot's home featuring a view of the fresco.View of the master bedroom of Jean Charlot's home featuring a view of the fresco.
The master bedroom of Jean Charlot’s home featuring a view of a fresco. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“It would have been difficult to restore it to a condition fulfilling its history,” Young said.

Young says a key stumbling block has been the preservation easement drawn up by the Charlots with Historic Hawaii Foundation at the time the house was donated that restricts forever how it can be used.

The easement prohibits the university or any future owner from demolishing or changing any part of the residence that would affect its architectural, historic and cultural value.

It stipulates that the house may be used only as a single-family home or as a college or university faculty club and only for artistic, architectural and educational purposes. All commercial uses are prohibited.

In addition, the university says the other handicapping features are the property’s limited parking and its distance from the Manoa campus.

Historic Hawaii Executive Director Faulkner says the Charlot House is of “global significance” with its singular blend of design features from France, Mexico and Hawaii — the cultures that powerfully influenced the artistic sensibility of a man she calls “one of the greatest muralists of the twentieth century.”

To walk through the house is to experience Charlot as he expressed his art in his everyday living.

Jean Charlot painting artist in HawaiiJean Charlot painting artist in Hawaii
Jean Charlot painting in the studio of his Kahala home in 1970. Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii Library

The Paris-born artist lived in Hawaii from 1949 until his death at age 81 in 1979.

He was a giant in the world of massive fresco mural expressions — a genius who quickly rose to fame as a young man when he lived in Mexico in the early 1920s, throwing his energy into painting huge government-funded projects as one of the founders of the Mexican Muralism Revival working with the likes of Fernando Leal, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.

After an extensive career that took him from Mexico to New York, and later to Georgia and Colorado, Charlot arrived in Hawaii in 1949 to work on a UH commission to create a fresco mural for Bachman Hall.

He became fascinated with Hawaiian history and culture and decided to make Hawaii his permanent home after he received a full-time teaching offer in the university’s art department. He immersed himself in the cultural life of the islands, learning to speak Hawaiian fluently.

Charlot’s Hawaii works  — the largest outpouring of art in his life — include 600 easel paintings, hundreds of prints and 36 public murals that can be seen across Honolulu in buildings such as the Honolulu Convention Center, the United Public Workers headquarters in Kalihi, UH Manoa and the theatre lobby at Leeward Community College.

In 1958, Jean Charlot collaborated with architect George “Pete” Wimberly to design his family home at 4956 Kahala Avenue that is now listed on both the Hawaii and the national registers of historic places.

The two-story structure with its asymmetrical roofline sits on a quarter-acre lot on the mauka side of Kahala Avenue; Waialae Country Club’s golf course is on one side and the Kapakahi Canal is on the other. It is considered by architects and art historians to be a work of art itself.

One of the walls is made entirely of the aerial roots of giant hapuʻu tree ferns.  A cantilevered table in the dining room Charlot designed stretches halfway inside the house and half outside onto the garden terrace. And one of the living room walls is covered with a museum quality fresco mural titled “Tropical Foliage”  that Charlot painted with his friend, Hawaii-born Juliette May Fraser.

Jean Charlot’s Fresco mounted near the second floor of the First Hawaiian Bank, Waikiki Branch.Jean Charlot’s Fresco mounted near the second floor of the First Hawaiian Bank, Waikiki Branch.
Jean Charlot’s fresco mounted near the second floor of the First Hawaiian Bank, Waikiki Branch. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In the kitchen and bathroom, Charlot decorated ceramic tiles with depictions of Hawaiian petroglyphs. His hand is everywhere. Walking through the welcoming rooms fashioned from old growth redwood, you can still feel his presence through his attention to even the smallest design details.

David Charlot says his grandfather never stopped creating art; working in the Kahala home up until the day he died of cancer, refusing all painkillers for fear the medicine would cloud his thinking.

UH is not the first institution in Hawaii to dispose of a home it has inherited.

Honolulu Museum of Art in 2020 sold for $2.65 million a Vladimir Ossipoff-designed home near Diamond Head donated to the museum by attorney Marshall Goodsill and his wife Ruth.

HOMA also currently has on the market for $13.89 million the Hart Wood-designed Spalding House on Makiki Heights Drive. The museum inherited the house when it merged with The Contemporary Museum.

One of the most memorable dispositions of gifted property was in 1968 when Punahou School sold its Walter Dillingham bequested La Pietra mansion on Diamond Head to the founders of Hawaii School for Girls for $1 million rather than continue dealing with a developer who wanted to raze the Italianate home to build 76 luxury residences.

Bill Chapman, interim dean of the UH School of Architecture, said the university’s decision to dispose of the Charlot Home, although sad, is in the best interests of the future preservation of the home.

Chapman cited other institutions around the country that are also ending their oversight of inherited properties, such as the University of Southern California’s divestment of Gamble House, the Arts and Crafts-style masterpiece in Pasadena that USC managed for 50 years.

The Charlot House is not being sold to a stranger but rather returned with a $1 quitclaim deed to family members who know and cherish each room, like David Charlot, who lived there for many years with his grandparents while he was attending Kahala Elementary School.

Walking through the residence on Friday David said, “It was a beautiful house. Every detail was carefully thought out. We will bring it back. We don’t have to make it exactly like it was. We can embrace its age.”

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