Sisters Mary Philpotts McGrath and Alice Flanders Guild’s vacation homes on Hawai`i Island have their own distinct stories to tell.

Something powerful happens when two sisters set about creating vacation homes for their family and friends. Especially when those sisters bring energy, style and no small about of family heritage along with them.

Interior designer Mary Philpotts McGrath and Alice Flanders Guild were both firmly planted in Honolulu. Mary’s high-powered career made her name well-known for high-end, sophisticated island interiors, while Alice kept a lower profile raising a family and participating in many community and charity affairs.

Alice and her husband, Rab, had for many years taken their four children and friends to houses along the beach at Malaekahana on O`ahu’s North Shore. But after their fourth house was condemned for public use, Alice gave up and said, “No more!” She was sick of spending all her vacation time cleaning and cooking. Rab, on the other hand, had fallen in love with the Big Island. While on vacation at the Ritz-Carlton, he made an appointment with a realtor to look at vacation homes. Alice went reluctantly.

“It was the last place we saw, and the moment I set foot on the property, I knew this was it,” she says. The day was gloriously sunny and the property smelled of eucalyptus and fresh ginger. Alice was smitten. They purchased the AK Ranch in Ahualoa, already named Ahua Kilinoe, meaning the “soft, gentle misty rain” that falls in the area. “It was the last sunny day we saw for two years,” she exclaims. Even the Meyer lemon trees had fuzzy mildew on them. “All I could think was, what have we done?”

That was 22 years ago, and today the home has become a haven for them, their children, grandchildren and friends. They added a master bedroom, closet and bath to the original two-bedroom structure soon after they moved, but later found the living room and kitchen were just too small to fit everyone in on weekends and holidays. So 12 years ago, prior to their 50th wedding anniversary, they hired Waimea architect Rhody Lee to design a “party barn” using as a guide a barn they loved in Napa Valley.

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The lanai of the Guild Party Barn at Ahua Kilinoe in the "soft gentle, misty rain" for which it was named.

The great room in the barn has walls of white “skiplap” boards running horizontally, two fireplaces with mantelpieces made from a dead tree that once stood on the property. On the mantle are polo trophies from the sisters’ grandfather, Walter Macfarlane, and horseracing trophies won by their grandmother, Kamokila Campbell. A round koa table is one of four made from the floor of their great-grandparents, Abigail and James Campbell’s, ballroom on Diamond Head.

Whimsical collections are a large part of both Big Island homes. In the party barn is a collection of koa bowls made from over 20 years of “collecting blanks,” or discarded pieces of wood. They were then expertly fashioned into beautiful bowls by Waimea woodworker, George Vento.

When Alice found the children were no longer coming as often because they had to lug so much to the Big Island, they had Eric Johnsen design and construct a freestanding structure called “The Coop” for their daughter, Lisa and her husband, John Eveleth and their two children. “The Nest” was redesigned and renovated for their son, Walter Guild, his wife Jackie and their son. Originally an art studio/greenhouse, “The Egg” was renovated by woodworker Charlie Erck for their daughter, designer Rici Guild. Another daughter, Didi, took one of the bedrooms in the main house.

Alice’s sister, Mary, was already spending a great deal of time on the Kohala coast with her design projects, so when Alice learned of an old Parker Ranch cowboy house that needed to be moved immediately or face destruction, she asked if she could move the house onto a piece of verdant land Mary had recently acquired outside the town of Waimea.

The little wooden house had housed the Kawabata family with their five children. Yoshio Kawabata worked as a farmer, rancher and bus driver. His wife, Kiyono, was a maid for both Richard Smart, Parker Ranch owner, and Hartwell Carter, who managed it for six years.

Mary stopped by one day to see it, and like Alice, fell in love instantly. Mary’s land rose steeply from a flat pasture to a pu`u, or hill. With the help of an architect from the Waimea Preservation Society, a site was found where it would not intrude on the landscape, yet command a breathtaking view of Mauna Kea and Hualalai.

Unfortunately, there was no road up the steep hill, so the house was loaded onto a truck, which was then pulled up the slope. She later put in a winding road that still challenges some cars.

Mary could have created an interior resembling the high-profile residences she regularly designs, but instead chose to furnish the house entirely from the area. “One of the reasons you go to Waimea is to get away from city life,” she says. “You go to the Farmers Market here and sit down with people you don’t know, and the next thing you realize is you’ve been talking for two hours.”

The three-bedroom house, stained green and trimmed with white, is filled with Mary’s collections from Waimea and Hamakua shops, many of them second hand. The beds all have brilliantly colored handmade quilts, the paintings and wall art are often naïve and folk-like. Furniture is sourced locally. She insists that anyone who stays paint a miniature canvas to add to her collection. “I want everyone who’s been here to leave a small part of themselves.” Of the Kawabata family, she says they’ve left some of their family’s spirit too.

The original house had a detached bathroom and furo that were in too poor of a condition to save. So she traced its footprint and built “his” and “hers” bathrooms using whatever she could salvage, including an old iron bathtub.

The sisters have created different, yet very personal vacation homes that speak to the values and attitudes of another time. Both allude to the design aesthetic Mary champions in her book, Hawaii: A Sense of Place. Design needs to be sensitive to the environment and the people who inhabit it. There is a spirit, Mary says, that stays with land, objects and even dwellings that must be honored and brought into the present. Both these dynamic sisters have taken what already existed, kept what they could, embellished with good humor and shared their homes with others.