Last week, the Honolulu Museum of Art announced that the Spalding House is for sale. At the end of this year, the art on display will return to the museum collection and the staff will relocate.

I love Spalding House. It is a wonderful place to wander and picnic. It is, for me, an accessible luxury in a city that is slowly pricing out locals.

Seated in Makiki Heights, Spalding House is more than a home for art; it is also a point from which to view the ongoing development of Honolulu. It’s a relic of the old oligarchy, and its pending sale is a sign of the times.

Honolulu high rises can be seen from the grounds of the Spalding House. A vision of the future perhaps?

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Loss Of Perspective

Honolulu is undergoing a slow Manhattanization, and Spalding House is a perfect point from which to view this process. Sit on the great lawn and look down on the city below.

Watching cranes lift Kakaako condominiums from the ruins of warehouses, it isn’t hard to imagine the future: a continuous strip of high-rise buildings from Waikiki to Pearl City.

The great lawn is a favorite picnic spot in Makiki Heights.

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Like new condominiums, the cost of living in Honolulu continues to rise. Glimmering buildings like Waiea Ward Village contrast sharply with the people struggling to survive in their shadows.

Despite widespread poverty and privatization, small fortunes are made in tourism, development and real estate. Homeless people mill about the city, unable to afford a place to live on minimum wage; meanwhile, local magnates, executives and investors earn millions of dollars a year.

Our islands play host to out-of-state wealth. Japanese, Canadian and Chinese money pours in. Silicon Valley billionaires plant roots.

Given the context, it seems likely that Spalding House will be sold to a foreign buyer, and the grounds will no longer be accessible to the general public. We can pray for salvation, but salvation may not come.

Better to hope that the new oligarchy is as generous as the old oligarchy, which bequeathed us relics like Spalding House.

The Spalding House estate was originally the home of Anna Rice Cooke.

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The Vision Of One Woman

Anna Charlotte Rice was born in 1853, the daughter of missionary teachers. She attended Oahu College (now Punahou School) and Mills College. Then, in 1874, she married Charles Montague Cooke.

Charles’s father, Amos Starr Cooke, was a co-founder of Castle & Cooke, one of Hawaii’s Big Five. Charles briefly served as head bookkeeper for his father’s company before striking out on his own.

The David Hockney exhibit, L’Enfant et les sortileges, occupies an entire small building on the grounds of the Spalding House.

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Among other ventures, Charles invested in sugar plantations, supported efforts to have Hawaii annexed by the United States and co-founded Bank of Hawaii. Charles and Anna were among the wealthiest and most influential residents of Hawaii.

In 1882, the Cooke family built a home on Beretania Street, just across from Thomas Square. They filled their home with art, eventually collecting more than they could store. They lived there until Charles died in 1909.

In the 1920s, Anna tore down the family home and founded the Honolulu Museum of Art in its place. Meanwhile, she built a new home in Makiki Heights: the Cooke-Spalding House. Her daughter, Alice Spalding, bequeathed the house to the museum in 1968, though it has bounced between owners since then.

In this way, the Honolulu Museum of Art and Spalding House both originate with the vision of one woman, a member of the 19th century elite. We should hope that, among the nouveau riche, we can find similarly generous patrons of the arts.

Accessible Luxury

Art collection and display has always been a province of the elite. But the Honolulu Museum of Art and Spalding House make this luxury available to the masses.

For $10, you can visit the museum on Beretania Street and browse the galleries and grounds at Spalding House and take in a view that would otherwise cost millions. For $20, you can tour Shangri La, the estate of the late Doris Duke.

Traversing the small trail system is one way to lose yourself on the grounds of the Spalding House.

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I count my annual membership to the Honolulu Museum of Art as a great investment. For a small price, I have a quiet place to read and meditate, a shelter from the hustle and bustle of town.

When I sit in the Chinese Courtyard at the Honolulu Museum of Art, I am inspired by the architecture, the melding of nature and artifice. It is tempting to think of that space as eternal, as a space I might one day share with my own children.

But the sale of Spalding House is a reminder that access is always conditional. If bequests and donations cease, the museums close.

We are fortunate that our state supports the arts. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts supports local artists and displays art in public places. The Hawaii State Art Museum is a vibrant event and gallery space. But for all the state does, the arts still rely on private support.

As new money supplants old, I hope the oligarchs will continue to make art available to the masses, to those who live below and cannot afford a private view.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.