Story by Sarah Ruppenthal | Photography by Travis Rowan
With its steeply pitched rooflines, gingerbread gable trim, and butter-yellow exterior, Tammy and John Browning’s residence in Kula is a home so unique and charming that it seems straight out of a storybook. In fact, that was John’s initial impression of the house when he first saw it five years ago. At the time, he, his wife Tammy, and their two young children were living forty miles away in West Maui. But they knew they were ready for a change of scenery and they had their sights set on the Upcountry area. So when the musician Mick Fleetwood, a friend of John’s, told him about a twenty-three-acre estate for sale in Kula, John’s interest was piqued. One afternoon he took an unscheduled solo road trip to get a sense of the place. He parked next to the entry gate, hopped out of his idling car, peered through the wrought-iron bars, and was awestruck. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen on Maui or anywhere else in Hawai‘i,” he says. And yet, because of John’s own history, it had an air of familiarity. John had spent much of his childhood at his maternal grandparents’ home, the historic Cuneo Mansion in Vernon Hills, Illinois, which today has become the Cuneo Museum and Gardens. Architecturally, the two estates differ—the Cuneo is designed in a Mediterranean style, the one in Kula in a Victorian style—but both have the same castle-like grandeur. As a kid John had dreamed of one day living in a home like that of his grandparents. Now here it was, he recalls, “sitting right in front of me.”
In the days following his impromptu visit, John couldn’t stop thinking about the house. Finally Tammy called their realtor, who scheduled a tour. When she and John drove through the gate for the first time, Tammy’s reaction was the same as her husband’s. “The place was breathtaking,” she remembers. As they toured the grounds there was a lot to take in: In addition to the three-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath main residence, there is an attached ‘ohana apartment atop a three-car garage, a two-story guest house, a caretaker’s cottage, a detached nine-car garage, a saltwater pool and pavilion, a barn/workshop, and a nine-acre koa forest. As the couple toured the estate, John says it was as if an invisible force was tugging at his shirtsleeve, whispering, “You have got to buy this.” The clincher came when John, a car collector, stepped inside the detached garage and saw its spaces for nine cars. “It couldn’t have been any more perfect,” he says.
Their realtor told them about the home’s intriguing past. It had been built at the end of the twentieth century by the late Laurence Holmes Dorcy, Jr., better known as Baron, a nickname he acquired while serving in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command. Baron was the great-grandson of railroad tycoon James J. Hill, and he, like John, was a car collector. When Baron purchased the Kula property in 1997, his first order of business had been to build a garage for his trove of classic cars. He broke ground on the main house soon after and was in no rush to finish—it took him nearly eight years to complete. “It was a labor of love,” Tammy explains. “He put so much detail into every square inch.”
And he didn’t stop after the housewarming party; Baron continued to make improvements until his death in 2011. Signs of his multifaceted life are everywhere. He was the quintessential car guy but also had an affinity for airplanes and trains, as evidenced by the B-52 bombers painted on the octagonal master bedroom ceiling and the reconstructed steam engine that once sat on the property. He had a passion for boats, too, and famously commissioned a 103-foot square-rigged topsail ketch in the 1980s he named the Hawaiian Chieftain.
After Baron died, the estate sat unoccupied for four years. Fleetwood, who is yet another car aficionado, had been a frequent visitor at Baron’s, which is how the celebrated drummer knew about the estate and was able to guide the Brownings to it.
Tammy and John decided to buy, though they could see the place needed some TLC. The couple spent several months restoring the estate to its original condition. By the time the family moved in, every structure on the property had been revamped inside and out. The main house received a top-to-bottom refresh, but nearly all of its original features were left intact. There are points of interest throughout. A large peacock is painted on one of the kitchen walls. An embossed copper ceiling soars above the dining room. Murals depicting the pools of ‘Ohe‘o line the grand staircase. A vintage accordion cage elevator connects the three floors.
A technological upgrade was also in order: According to those who knew him, Baron wanted the home to be free of distractions, so there were no televisions, phones, or computers. There was no Internet service. To bring the residence into the twenty-first century, John installed a home automation system so that everything—from the lights to the security system—can be monitored remotely and controlled with a smartphone or tablet. He also had three thousand feet of fiber-optic cable laid underground so every structure could connect to high-speed Internet.
Today the estate may have all of the comforts of modern living, but it hasn’t lost the tranquil ambience Baron envisioned when he designed and built it. Before he died, he christened the estate Moemalie, which is Tahitian for “peaceful rest.” The Brownings agree it’s a perfect word to describe it.
Arita Poulson General Contracting, LLC
P.O. Box 1035, Pu‘unēnē
808-871-4787 | AritaPoulson.com
Bellissimo Stoneworks and Design, Inc.
10 Hakoi Pl., Kīhei
808-214-4880 | Bellissimo-Tile.com
Chris Curtis Landscapes
P.O. Box 1278, Ha‘ikū
808-575-2367 | ChrisCurtisLandscapes.com
(home automation system)
375 Huku Li‘i Pl., Suite 108, Kīhei
808-495-4344 | EDesignHawaii.com
Inspired Closets Hawaii
94-485 Uke‘e St., Waipahu
808-678-0096 | InspiredClosets.com
Rainbow Painting of Maui, Inc.
2684 Kauhale St., Kīhei 808-870-1838