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Mughal Suite Renovations: Behind the Ironed Curtain

This is the first in a series of posts featuring behind-the-scenes coverage of the current renovations at Shangri La’s Mughal Suite, the marble bedroom suite commissioned of Delhi-based British architect Francis B. Blomfield by Doris Duke on her honeymoon in 1935. The Mughal Suite is scheduled to open to the public in October 2014.

In the spring of 1936, newlywed Doris Duke Cromwell was just twenty-four years old when construction began on the 14,000 square foot Honolulu home to her then rapidly growing Islamic art collection. She was uncommon in circumstance and vision, to say the least. Yet there are lasting signs that the young Duke had a good bit in common with your average twenty-something today–if the fact that Shangri La’s collections include surf boards, a pair of water skis and plenty of bikinis is any indication. The staff here thought we’d seen it all until recently, when electrical renovations in the Mughal Suite began.

The original appearance of Doris Duke’s bedroom at Shangri La with furnishings acquired during her travels in 1935 and 1938, March-April 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
The original appearance of Doris Duke’s bedroom at Shangri La, with furnishings acquired during her travels in 1935 and 1938, March-April 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

A simple curtain once hung in the southwest corner of the bedroom between a pair of marble jali doors. Venturing to guess what was behind the curtain, one might assume it was the same vitrine that exists there today, a small wall-mounted exhibition case in which Duke later displayed a variety of bejeweled Mughal Indian treasures, including enameled gold boxes and jade-handled daggers.

Doris Duke's bedroom at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)
Doris Duke’s bedroom at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)
A snapshot of the vitrine in the southwest corner of the bedroom circa 1999 documenting the arrangement of its contents as found by the first museum staff cataloguing the collection.
A snapshot of the vitrine in the southwest corner of the bedroom circa 1999, as found by the Shangri La curatorial team cataloging the collection following Doris Duke’s death in 1993.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The vitrine was cleared of its contents several years ago by museum staff to safely await the Mughal Suite’s turn among the many high priority restoration projects–from new roofs to fountain pump replacements–scheduled since 2001.  Even historic preservation work can entail demolition work, although it’s carried out with inordinate care and documented in detail. Unavoidably, the original vitrine had to be gutted for rewiring. It began a few weeks ago with exploratory surgery–a gentle tapping of the vitrine’s back wall, a noting of three mysterious hollows underneath the faded velvet–a tentative slicing of the velvet lining to see what lay beneath, revealing….

A piece of velvet is removed to further investigate the vitrine's original construction.
A piece of velvet is removed to further investigate the vitrine’s original construction.
Speakers found behind the southwest vitrine were deinstalled in December 2013.
Speakers found behind the southwest vitrine were deinstalled in December 2013.

…..whopping speakers.  Surprising? Yes and no, for what self-respecting twenty-something moves into a new house without installing a killer sound system?

A search in the Shangri La Historical Archives reaped correspondence and architectural drawings as early as 1937 confirming that the newfound speakers were a component of the Capehart system, a site-wide radio and phonographic sound system installed at Shangri La in 1939. The system seemingly consisted of a central cabinet with an “automatic record changer capable of handling twenty 10” or 12” phonograph records, playing either or both sides of same,” concealed remote control stations and hidden speakers allowing listeners to control the music in different rooms, switching between record player and radio with the click of a button and a turning of dials to select stations and adjust volume. At each location, listeners had access to 10 program channels (8 radio, 1 phonograph and 1 special input), which could be independently tuned, that is, with the radio on in one room, a different radio program on in another, and a phonograph record playing down the hall. A 50-foot high aerial to be tucked among ironwood trees along the east boundary of the property was another essential component.

Annotated correspondence with the architects dated May 1, 1937 reflects the Cromwells' active participation in the Capehart design process. Shangri La Historical Archives, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Annotated correspondence with the architects dated May 1, 1937, reflects the Cromwells’ active participation in the Capehart design process. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

The central equipment was installed in a walk-in closet between the dining room and Mihrab Room, possibly hidden behind a pair of Persian painted wood doors. This closet was referred to in early architectural drawings as the Capehart room, a long-forgotten name as the room came to be known as the library with its book-lined walls. There is no trace today of the Capehart equipment it once contained.

Construction-era architectural drawings show the Capehart room, known later as the library, as being located between the Mihrab room and dining room. Shangri La Historical Archives, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Construction-era architectural drawings show the Capehart room, known later as the library, as being located between the Mihrab room and dining room. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

The Capehart system first appears in the house architectural plans in early 1937. An as-built or record drawing of the Capehart system from 1939 indicates speakers were installed in the living room and Damascus room (then called the guest room or Christine’s room, referring to James Cromwell’s daughter). A March 21, 1939, Thayer Piano invoice indicates that the Capehart 1939 model was installed with speakers in the living room, bedroom, dining room, guest room, main control room, and Playhouse. While repair invoices from 1943 and 1947 show the system was in use, further research is needed to try to determine at what point the system was abandoned.

 

A sticker on the back of each speaker identifies the manufacturer as Cinaudagraph.
A sticker on the back of each speaker identifies the manufacturer as Cinaudagraph.

The speakers were made by Cinaudagraph Corp. in Stamford, Connecticut (small world, this blog post writer’s hometown). A year after the Capehart System was installed at Shangri La, Cinaudagraph’s chief engineer, Rudy Bozak (whose name, thank you,Wikipedia, is still on the lips of DJs for the sound mixers he designed and is even mentioned in a Beastie Boys song) designed a massive PA system for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Point being, the Capehart system was surely a state-of-the-art sound system of its day.

The current plan for the speakers is to place them back in the wall behind the new vitrine, where they’ll remain as a time capsule, hidden behind fresh red velvet dripping with Mughal Indian treasures. A cabinet of curiosities indeed.