HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP, N.J. >> On a 2,700-acre estate in central New Jersey, a majestic mansion that heiress Doris Duke once called home may soon disappear.
The Duke Farms Foundation, which oversees the property, wants to demolish the 65,000-square-foot mansion, which has been empty since the tobacco heiress’ death in 1993. They say the building, erected in 1893, has fallen into disrepair, with asbestos and mold problems, and would take $10 million to $20 million to bring it up to code — money they say can be better spent on other farm-related projects.
A grass-roots community group is fighting the foundation’s plans.
Called DORIS, for Demolition of Residence is Senseless, the group wants the foundation to save the mansion in Hillsborough Township. They want to explore several possible “re-adaptive uses” that they say would generate income and attention.
The two groups will come together again Thursday night, when Hillsborough’s Historic Preservation Commission continues its hearings on the foundation’s demolition plans.
“We really have no use for this building anymore. It’s become a big white elephant,” said Michael Catania, the foundation’s executive director. He noted the group has been systematically restoring smaller buildings on the estate and chose to turn its Coach Barn into a conference center.
Catania said the foundation has considered alternate uses for the mansion and consulted with architects, landscape architects and architectural historians. But it could not identify a “mission-appropriate” use for the building, which he described as a collection of small rooms that aren’t functional for public use.
“We looked at what we could do with (the mansion), but decided there were other ways we could improve the property and better serve the public,” Catania said. “That puts us at odds with handful of historic preservationists, who think everything should be preserved, but we disagree.”
Duke was a socialite, philanthropist and environmentalist with interests ranging from fine art to horticulture to surfing. She was a global traveler who acquired items from around the world, including a collection of Islamic and Southeast Asian art.
She led a colorful life that drew international media attention. But most of her philanthropic work involved the Hillsborough estate, where she created many elaborately themed gardens, including one of the nation’s largest indoor botanical displays.
Duke’s father, James Buchanan Duke, assembled the Tudor-style estate, beginning with a 357-acre farm on a picturesque stretch of the Raritan River. He eventually acquired 40 adjacent farms in the following years, expanding the total acreage of Duke Farms to 2,200 acres by the early 1900s.
James Duke, who endowed Duke University and founded Duke Power and the American Tobacco Company, wanted to create a fully operational farm that was similar to those in North Carolina, where he grew up.
Duke engaged a variety of notable landscape architects and engineers to help him create seemingly natural vistas out of the flat farmland in New Jersey. He excavated nine lakes, constructed 45 buildings and built nearly 2 ½ miles of stone walls and more than 18 miles of roads. He also installed about 35 fountains and populated his property with sculpture.
If the demolition does occur, Duke Farms plans to open about 50 acres to the public. That property, which surrounds the home and is now fenced off, includes waterfalls, a lake and a meditation garden.
David Brook, one of the organizers of DORIS, says the foundation has been doing some good things in some areas of the estate. But he says its officials are “forgetting their mission” by moving forward with their demolition plans.
“We think the foundation has been incredibly myopic and failing in their mission,” Brook said. “Their mission is to be proper steward of the land, to be a good steward, and don’t demolish an historic structure.”
Brook said the mansion can be used to generate income for the foundation and spread the word about the estate and its mission of being a model of environmental stewardship. For example, he said it could house a book or gift shop that would educate visitors and create jobs.
He also suggested the foundation could use Doris Duke’s legacy to attract visitors, who he said would like to see the mansion.
“There’s an amazing lore with Doris Duke; people know her,” Brook said. “How can you have that grand estate without the house? It’s like cutting the heart out of a person.”