Virtual Tour Exclusive (not viewable on Guided Tour)
Located on the west end of the property and adjacent to the ocean, the Playhouse at Shangri La is a poolside pavilion inspired by the Chehel Sutun (c. 1647–50) palace in Isfahan, the capital of Iran from 1598 to 1722. The Playhouse features a large central living room, small kitchen, and two bedroom suites on its mountain and ocean sides. Its façade has a large lanai with a painted wood ceiling supported by 14 columns and facing a pool. In positioning Shangri La’s pool directly in front of the Playhouse, Doris Duke (1912–93) and her architects were likely inspired by a similar arrangement at the Chehel Sutun, where the pool in front of the Safavid palace reflects the 18 slender columns on its porch (talar), thereby creating an illusion of many more columns (chehel sutun means “forty columns” in Persian).
By the time Doris Duke and her husband James Cromwell departed for their Middle East tour in March 1938, the Playhouse was largely complete. What remained to be done, however, was the decoration of its lanai, including the designs of its roof and the columns below. In this instance, the Cromwells desired that the Persian prototype, the Chehel Sutun’s talar, be carefully copied. While in Isfahan in 1938, they meticulously photographed and filmed the Safavid palace’s porch. This documentation was passed on to Shangri La’s architects, who created stencils, and then painted the Playhouse’s lanai to parallel that of the Chehel Sutun (64.118). Approximately two years later, mosaic tilework commissioned in Isfahan during the 1938 trip and inspired by that on the entrance portal of Isfahan’s Masjid-i Shah (Shah Mosque, 1612–c. 1630) was installed on the building’s façade, thereby completing the overall Persian aesthetic.
The living room in the Playhouse has undergone numerous transformations over the course of Shangri La’s history. In its earliest guise, c. 1938, it was conceived as a tented space. Plain fabric created a draped ceiling, while printed cottons custom-made in India in the late 1930s constituted the “walls” below. Central Asian suzanis, many of which were purchased during the Cromwells’ honeymoon in 1935, further sheathed the walls, and a large Central Asian carpet covered the floor. Divans (low couches) were located in the corners of the room, and Duke was known to have sat here and played music with friends. By 1941, the tented ceiling had been removed and replaced with a painted one with bold geometric designs (64.89) echoing those found on the ceilings of seventeenth-century Persian palaces, like the Chehel Sutun. The room was further “Persianized” by the inclusion of a number of nineteenth-century Qajar Iranian works of art, including a tile panel with scenes of elite merriment (48.429), several sets of lacquer doors with similar depictions of courtly leisure (64.88a–b), a carved screen inset with geometric shapes of colored glass (64.90a–f), a pair of colored-glass arched windows (46.14, 46.15), and several examples of large-scale paintings of female court entertainers (musicians, dancers) (34.7, 34.3). In the 1980s, the oceanside bedroom became home to two highlights of Duke’s Qajar art collection—a ceiling painting on canvas (34.9) and a wall painting on canvas (34.10)—which were installed on the ceiling and north wall, respectively.
Since 2002, the Playhouse has functioned as a space for public programs supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Given its oceanside location, the Playhouse remains the focus of ongoing conservation efforts, including the preservation of the custom-made Iranian tilework on its façade.