Friday, January 12, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, January 12, 2001

Reviving Hilo's Shipman castle

By Wade Kilohana Shirkey
Advertiser Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Recently, we paid a return visit to Hilo’s Shipman mansion, following a several-year renovation that turned the crumbling historic mansion from the neglected family residence of the Big Island pioneer Shipman family into a glorious bed-and-breakfast, and residence of Shipman great-granddaughter Barbara Andersen and her husband, Gary.

If human eyes are the windows to the soul, so the windows in a house might be said to be the viewpoint into the home, its history and spirit. This being the case, the windows that ring Hilo’s famed Shipman Mansion are indicative not only of a bit of historic novelty but a wee touch of ornery tax deception as well.

Inside the Shipman house, the furnishings are meant to reflect the heydays of the mansion.

Hugh Clark • The Honolulu Advertiser

The turn-of-the-century house was built to literally rise up and meet you: The entrance is erected at a height to match that of a high carriage. The "eyebrow" window on the roof almost winks in welcome, and the wrap-around lanai bids you enter.

Today, there is a collection of umbrellas at the door to cope with Hilo’s rain, its welcoming ua. The small sign, "MAHALO FOR REMOVING YOUR SHOES," reminds this is a place of tradition. Grand tradition, Hilo style.

More especially, this is the famed Shipman house’s second lease on life, once closer to demolition than renaissance.

The wavy glass in the ceiling-to-floor "window-doors" still presents the same ghostly image it did at the original 1899 housewarming party.

Inside, furnishings speak of grand times past: There is the dining table at which Queen Liliuokalani dined while puffing away at cigars. Occasionally, she sat at the grand piano and played for her fellow guests. The magnificent grandfather clock, said the mistress of the house, Barbara Andersen, has "been here forever." She should know: The historic grand edifice on 5 1/2 acres of Kaiulani Street was her small-kid stomping ground.

Shipman House Bed & Breakfast

Where: 131 Kaiulani St., Hilo. (Go up Waianuenue, pass library, turn right at first light, over wooden bridge; house is first on left.)

History: Built in 1899; purchased in 1901 by W.H. "Willie" Shipman as a gift for his wife, Mary Elizabeth Kahiwaaialii Johnson Shipman.

Phone: (808) 934-8002 (and fax); or 1-800-627-8447.

Rooms: Five bedrooms, with baths; three in main house; two in adjacent guest house.

Price: $155-$175/night double ($25/extra person) (plus $25 for single night’s stay).

Here in the memory-filled parlor are the Shipman family’s baby high chairs, antique Chinese pots, and "Grandfather’s humidor." The piano is a 1912 Steinway — at which Lili
uokalani — and Charles K.L. Davis, Mahi Beamer and former Miss Universe Brooke Lee — "tinkled its ivories."

Displayed canoe paddles were fashioned of a diseased mango tree felled on the estate’s side yard. The stump of a kou tree from another Shipman property serves as the base of the dining table.

"This is very rare," said Andersen of a collection of prized calabashes of native woods — kou, koa and kamani. "I don’t know how much of this is true, but for Kalakaua’s Jubilee, he ordered all large kou trees cut down for (calabashes) as party favors." For that reason — and a subsequent blight — kou is precious today.

The flowers that are every day placed around the grand 9,000-square-foot "Shipman Castle," as it’s known around Hilo town, are now fashioned especially for the house by a former housekeeper. She’s paid now just to do the flowers, picked from lush tropicals on the 5 1/2-acre estate.

Childhood admonishments

The "Lady on the Stair," a bronze newel post topper at the bottom of the grand entrance staircase, amber light in upraised hand, conjures up a memories of small-kid admonishments for Andersen: "She was here when dad lived here in the early ’20s — then she disappeared," said Anderson, who is the daughter of Big Island notable Roy Blackshear. "We found her in the attic in the ’70s."

During her childhood, young visitors were admonished not to touch the spot where the missing "lighted lady" had been: "You’ll get a shock!" they were warned. During remodeling, which ended three years ago, the lady was re-installed, in a socket found fully electrified all those years. Evidently, father does know best.

When Andersen set out to restore her childhood home, the original furnishings had been "spread to all corners of the world" — some on loan to various family members, others just plain "missing in action." She used the pictures in her head as a guide: "I restored it to the way I remembered it." She has altered some things to suit a lifestyle of the 21st century and to accommodate the logistics of a modern bread-and-breakfast or for a "more selfish" reason: "You have to remember," said Andersen, "This is also our house now!"

The "our," she admits, is a bit of a misnomer. Often the big changes get done when her computer consultant husband, Gary, is away on business. "Once he got back to a (new) bathroom, where a closet had been!"

"I don’t even get a say," he joked.

Often, says Andersen, a "missing piece" of the restoration puzzle will keep her awake for nights: "Something needs to be right here — I’m not able to remember." She’ll keep mulling until she gets it.

Wandering around with Andersen as childhood memories trail behind her is like going back in time. Part historian, part resident, she has recorded most of the home’s intricacies on tape, a self-guided tour. "Still," she joked, "I’m (often) kidnapped!" to lead interested bed-and-breakfasters through the mansion. Andersen even took a class in oral history to better tweak the visitors’ imagination. She has learned to speak about the home’s hobbies, and about the 1930 hand-operatored Otis elevator.

She pauses to moisten the turned-up corner of a floor lauhala mat, anchoring it with heavy books to dry flat, modern injury lawsuits not far out of mind. As always at the Shipman House, it’s a little of the past mixed with a lot of the present.

Visitors fill in the blanks

But often it’s the visitors who fill in the missing pieces: "What is this old Hawaiian hat-box sort of thing?" she’s asked. "I don’t know," she said, eyes twinkling: "I’m hoping someone will tell me."

Past experience has proven that approach fertile: From one of the home’s visitors, she learned about a certain bit of devilishness on the part of her great-grandparents. Homeowners in England were at one time taxed by the number of windows. So, in true Victorian style, huge glazed "window-doors" which slide into the ceiling served the function of both window and door — yet were considered doors for tax purposes.

Downstairs, at the foot of the grand staircase, Vermont visitors arrive, marveling first at the grand piano. "Welcome," says Andersen, instinctively beginning the tour: "You may play the piano and are welcome anywhere in the house," except, of course, the family quarters on the top floor. That includes a most novel computer nook husband Gary immediately "kapu-ed": inside the circular, shingled "Witches Hat" turret some three or four stories up, overlooking a very sleepy looking Hilo.

"No smoking, no shoes!" says Andersen, firmly, her smile only slightly leaving her face, and free morning continental buffet is offered overloooking a stream, including the Shipman’s famous Morning Glory Macadamia Muffins. "You’ll hear that waterfall from your room," she tells them.

Phone cards are available for sale, but the newspaper is free. Music accompanied by dance from the resident hula halau softens the cool evening Hilo air some evenings.

Andersen shares other mysteries of the mansion with the visitors. An inlaid wooden table in the den hides a secret: At a time in Hawaii’s history when displaying the monarchial Hawaiian flag was illegal, the ensign was incorporated into the design of an inlaid wooden table by craftsman A.B. Loebenstein, and most times simply covered with a book. For the right audience, simply removing the book immediately displayed the Shipmans’ proud sympathies.

Shown to their cottage, the Vermont couple is reminded they’ll be sleeping under the headboard of another of the home’s famous guests: Jack London. His stay was preceded by the mandatory introduction letter the proper society of his day demanded, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Shipman. The 1907 letter describes the arriving guest as "one of the leading magazine and novel writers of the day," noting, though, he is but "plain, common-sense people." It was signed L.A. Thurston.

Construction of this outlying two-bedroom guest cottage was on command of her part-Hawaiian great-grandmother, Mary Shipman: "Dear," she can hear Grandmama say, "If we’re going to continue to have long-term guests . . . "

All rooms come with small refrigerator, cotton kimonos and fresh flowers. But, for modern guests, a letter of introduction is no longer needed — the 800 number suffices.

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