Sky Barnhart | Photography by Jason Moore | Styling by Michele Lin
Twenty-one years ago, Tom built a sandcastle. He built it on his favorite beach in the world: Keawakapu in South Maui. He built it solidly of stucco and plaster so that it wouldn’t wash away with the tides, but would stand as a real monument to his dreams, when he was a boy growing up in North Dakota, of someday having a home on the beach in Hawai‘i.
A sandcastle, but not the glittery kind you see suspended in glass paperweights; more like the kind a kid would make with a bucket and a shovel, just out of reach of the lapping waves.
“I was at a time in my life when I needed to be playful,” Tom says. The owner of multiple radio stations around the country, he felt he was sinking under the pressure of business and relationships. He needed to do something fun, something to relieve the stress and take his mind off his worries.
He bought a lot on Keawakapu Beach at a time when that part of South Kihei Road was still gravel, and the houses along the beachfront were simple, wooden post-World War II structures. Up the hill, Pi‘ilani Highway was just being built. A good friend of Tom’s who was working on the highway brought down a backhoe and helped to clear the lot to get it ready for construction.
“I laughed to myself about the idea of building a sandcastle,” Tom says. “I said to my friend who was helping me, ‘Let’s just make it look like two kids playing in the sand and see what happens.’”
On the advice of a neighbor, they laid out the house in an L-shape that sheltered it from strong trade winds and the glare of the afternoon sun. They chose a simple design: one level, with a master bedroom closest to the water, a smaller bedroom in back, two bathrooms, a living area and a kitchen. The “dining room” was the patio, furnished with a round teak table, four chairs and an umbrella.
They built it so that the side facing the water was open to the elements. “I wanted it to feel like a beach house, where most of the living is outdoors, with lots of patio and outdoor space,” Tom says.
He achieved this effect so successfully that twenty-one years later, I am halfway through a tour of the house with Tom’s son, Kaj, before I realize that I still have my shoes on. The hand-chiseled stone floor from Mexico is the color and texture of beach sand, with no threshold that defines “patio” from “living room”; you simply keep walking.
“You’re able to go to the beach and back in and not do damage,” Tom says. The materials are all of the highest quality, built to last. “Everything is stone and teak, nothing that can be hurt.”
That’s also an important principle when you have two young kids and all their friends running through. Kaj was ten when Tom built the house. “I thought, what kind of a dream can I build for them?” Tom says. “So I built a half-pipe skate ramp in the backyard. I had to tear it down after two years; I had every kid in Kihei wanting to skate there!”
Although the half-pipe is long gone, most of the other features that made the house special remain: The globe-shaped aquarium set into the living-room bookshelf, glowing at night like an undersea world. The huge painting by Pegge Hopper, originally intended for the Ala Moana Hotel, depicting two Hawaiian women reclining on the beach. The skylight, stretching over the orchid-lined Jacuzzi tub, bringing the Maui sky into the master bathroom. The blue, wedge-shaped pool that Tom says was possibly the first completely tiled pool in Hawai‘i.
And of course, the beach itself. Three steps off the back lawn, down a little naupaka tunnel, and I’m ankle-deep in warm Keawakapu sand, surrounded by moms slathering their little ones with sunscreen, couples venturing into the waves hand in hand, and of course, kids building sandcastles.
From the back lawn, you can’t see any of that. The low hedge has the wonderful effect of screening the beachgoers from view and revealing only the pure blue ocean beyond, along with the occasional breaching whale. “We let the naupaka grow up to give us more privacy,” Kaj says.
For Kaj, the house where he grew up is now a favorite weekend retreat. “It’s calming here,” he says. “Just being so close to the ocean, you hear the waves at night and it’s like sleeping on the beach.”
Because of current setback requirements, few homes built today are this near the ocean. “I guarantee that’s the closest bed to the water,” Kaj laughs, gesturing to the curtained four-poster with an original Guy Buffet painting hanging on the wall above it.
Certainly, living so close to the elements has its downside; there’s the wearing effect of the humidity and salt breeze. “We used to have a big plasma-screen TV in the living room, but it just went so quickly, we had to take it out,” Kaj says. “We replace the fans about once a year. You’ve just gotta stay on top of it.”
When kona weather comes, as it sometimes does in South Maui, they pull shut the louvered doors and storm doors, sealing off the house from the wind and rain. In the kitchen, an automatic metal screen rolls down to protect the commercial-grade appliances.
For Tom, his sandcastle house is “my hospital,” the place where he finds sanctuary. An avid hunter and fisherman, he has other retreats around the world—an island he owns in Canada with a fishing lodge and cabins for the family’s summer vacations, a fishing yacht in Los Cabos—but Maui is where he feels most at peace. Especially when he’s making dinner in the open-air, professionally equipped kitchen.
“I enjoy going to the market every day, and I cook almost every night,” he says. “We might eat wild fish or game three or four nights a week.
The exhaust vent for the commercial Wolf grill is hidden in the sandcastle’s turret, which juts upward from the house’s flat roofline. The smooth exterior walls are ornamented with glowing lamps tucked behind big white plaster shells. The landscaping is simple and eclectic: stubby Mexican palms, a fountain of cascading stone bowls in the entry way, a sculpture of a monkey family hiding in the bushes.
From the house’s green front doors, adorned with shell handles, the driveway curves up past the garage and guest quarters, past a palm-studded lawn to the road.
There is room here to expand the modest beach house, and Tom thinks perhaps he might in coming years. “I’d like to add a walk-in wine cellar, an outdoor pizza oven, a garden area in back with a waterfall, more of a courtyard entry way,” he says. But at the same time, he knows that the intimate size of the house—just over 2,000 square feet—is part of what makes it so special.
“When I first built it, I would get messages in my mailbox from people saying, ‘We love your house!’” Tom says. “A lot of people appreciate that it isn’t a big monster house . . . it’s really a little gem.”
A sandcastle, just like the kind you build with a bucket and a shovel . . . and maybe a good friend with a backhoe.