An Oasis, Once Gilded, Now Greened (Published 2012) (2023)


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An Oasis, Once Gilded, Now Greened (Published 2012) (1)


TEENAGERS growing up in this part of Central New Jersey used to boast of how they had jumped the stone walls into Doris Duke’s 2,740-acre estate here. How many actually made it past her private police force and how many merely bragged about doing so are lost to the haze of memory.

But the legend speaks to the mystery of Doris Duke, “the richest girl in the world,” who, if the newspapers of her day were to be believed, ate her baby porridge from a 14-carat-gold cup, bathed in colored water spouting from an ancient Italian fountain in her bedroom and wore bathrobes made from the wool of a rare species of dwarf camel.

Variously a foreign correspondent, a surfing champion, a protector of Imelda Marcos, a preservationist and a philanthropist, Duke was the target of threats and the delight of gossip columnists from her birth in one of the richest families in America to her death in 1993, when the headline on her obituary in The New York Times memorialized her as the “Heiress Whose Great Wealth Couldn’t Buy Happiness.”

In her will Duke left strict instructions about what to do with two other homes she wanted preserved, in Newport and Hawaii. But her wishes for Duke Farms, as the estate here is known, were more vague, speaking generally about a desire to use the land to promote conservation.

The trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grappled for more than a decade with what that might mean and whether they might better serve her broader goals by selling the land and using the millions it would fetch to, say, finance AIDS research in Africa. While they debated, they occasionally offered the public glimpses of Duke Farms, opening it to small tour groups by chaperon and by appointment. But the openings were sporadic, and ultimately Duke Farms retreated, as Doris Duke herself had, into seclusion.

On May 19 that will change. Duke Farms is opening, really opening, without chaperons and scheduled tours, but with a specific mission: Teach visitors to be good stewards of the environment.


With a $45 million face-lift that includes a fence to keep out the deer that had overrun the property, Duke Farms has become a haven for wildlife, including 30 endangered species and 230 varieties of birds, the bald eagle and the great blue heron among them. It will offer plots of land for what foundation officials say will be the biggest community garden in the country, as well as 250 acres of incubation space for aspiring organic farmers. In the greenhouses where Duke once recreated international gardens like those she had seen on her travels, the Duke Farms staff will offer classes and seed swaps for amateur gardeners.

Universities are using the land for various projects, including one to grow a hybrid American chestnut tree resistant to the blight that has devastated the species. Municipal officials from across the country have visited to learn how to control flood-prone areas, studying the work Duke Farms has done recontouring and replanting along 4.5 miles of the property that borders the Raritan River.

But for most people, Duke Farms will be best appreciated as a huge bonus of open space: for runners, walkers, birders, bicyclists, plein-air painters, picnickers and cross-country skiers. (Nora Wagner, the director of programs, says winter is the best time to look for wildlife here.)

Doris’s father, James Buchanan Duke, known as Buck, built his fortune from tobacco, and starting in 1893 he tried to reshape Duke Farms in the image of his native North Carolina, digging nine lakes and using the fill to make hills out of flat land. Three times the size of Central Park, the estate has 22 miles of trails winding past fountains, lagoons and sculptures; 810 acres of woodlands; and 464 acres of a grassland bird habitat. The hope is that in going to run or have a picnic, people whose eyes might glaze over at the mention of “sustainability” will be inspired to take care of the land around them — here and at home.

“There’s so many different objectives in this space,” said John E. Zuccotti, chairman of the board of trustees of the foundation. “I daresay there were plenty of people in the State of New Jersey who said, ‘Just give it to us, and we’ll make it a park.’ This isn’t just a park. That’s the whole point.”

You duck into Duke Farms off busy Route 206: once the highway of the Revolutionary War, now the commuter lane for exurbanites and office park dwellers in this area, the fastest growing part of the most densely populated state in the nation.

Cars are not allowed past a parking lot on the perimeter, though a shuttle will run a small loop along a paved trail. But because the estate aims to leave no carbon footprint, anything you take in — lunch bags, water bottles — you take out. (“Does that work?” Mr. Zuccotti said. “We’re going to find out.”)


At the parking lot is the Farm Barn, built in 1906, which has been refurbished into an orientation center, using the latest standards of green building. On one end is a cafe, where there will be a farm-to-table caterer to serve light food. On the other are wall displays, including one that allows visitors to print out customized tours of, say, the property’s sculpture or the best places to view grassland birds.

I set out on a bike tour last month for a preview with Ms. Wagner as my guide. We wound our way past the “great falls” cascading from the reservoir Buck created for his water supply to the Mermaid Pool, where Doris swam. (You can see a remnant of the stone diving board.) Now scientists have installed small artificial islands with plants on them that suck up the nutrients that would otherwise create algae in the pool. (One hope of Duke Farms is that you might be inspired by its green innovations, like those planted discs, which you could plunk in your own pool to save on chlorine, or the recycled-glass countertops in the orientation center.)

We rode past balustrades and bridges reminiscent of Central Park’s — James Greenleaf, who worked in Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm, was the first landscape architect here — and up to the old foundation. In 1911 Buck began construction on an 80,000-square-foot mansion to supplant a 50-room residence, known as the Country Manor, already on the property. The various unauthorized biographies of Doris Duke say he halted the project because his wife preferred their mansion in Manhattan to a farm in New Jersey.

Estate history is more circumspect, suggesting that Buck might have felt a bit more budget-conscious after courts busted the monopoly of his company, American Tobacco, that same year, or that he preferred to direct the steel to the nation’s efforts in World War I. Whatever the reason, he completed much of the landscaping, and the foundation opens up a view to the Great Lawn, cascading from a terrace with a balcony and several broad stone steps.

We biked to the glass conservatory where Doris grew her beloved orchids. It has been elaborately restored and will be filled with 1,500 varieties. Beyond that were the conservatory gardens where Buck used to grow fruits and vegetables; a train line into the property carted them to his home on Fifth Avenue. Doris had converted them into indoor display gardens that were open to tours.

In the new Duke Farms they will house native plants, a change that has prompted grousing from critics who note that Doris filled her displays with international plants, modeled on gardens she had seen on her travels. Duke foundation officials say that the new gardens are more in keeping with the desire expressed in her will to create a haven for New Jersey flora and fauna.

Past that conservatory, the trail leads to the sculpture garden, an oasis within an oasis. It is the site of the old hay barn, which burned down in 1918. Doris Duke left the high stone walls, now covered in trumpet creeper vines, and set marble sculptures of human figures inside them. Take a blanket and a book.

Duke Farms10 PhotosView Slide Show ›

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Foundation officials envision the farms drawing visitors from New York to Philadelphia. It may be hard to imagine New Yorkers crossing the river to go to a park, even one with a broader mission. And local walkers may object to some of the rules intended to preserve the native species, including one that prohibits dogs.

What’s more, the Country Manor, which Doris expanded beginning in the 1930s, is not open to the public. Preservationists consulted by the foundation deemed the home not architecturally significant, and its belongings were auctioned off or moved to the collections at Duke’s other estates. That may dampen the interest among those who visit out of curiosity about her.

But that curiosity is dimming with time, said Edward P. Henry, president of the charitable foundation. Visitors to Duke Farms can view her in a different light from the one the tabloids once shined on her: as a woman who discovered organic food long before Whole Foods conquered suburbia, who talked about preserving the environment before green was the new black.

“Now she would be seen as an incredibly adventurous woman,” Mr. Henry said. “She studied modern dance with Martha Graham; she was a jazz musician; she was a women’s surfing champion; she was one of the first to focus on the importance of AIDS research. She lived an independent life, and she made things happen.”

The breathless biographies say that Doris Duke met Malcolm Forbes when his hot air balloon accidentally landed on her property. You might imagine that scene on opening day, when Duke Farms will offer rides in a tethered hot air balloon. You will get only a few other hints of the gilded extravagance that once existed within these hand-built stone walls; the Thai village that Doris Duke recreated on an indoor tennis court was auctioned off years ago, along with the other belongings. What you get instead is a priceless peace and quiet.

Once Upon a Farm

IF YOU GO 1112 Duke Parkway West, between Route 206 and Roycefield Road, Hillsborough, N.J.; (908) 722-3700, Trails are open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; closed Wednesdays. Free admission.

OPENING DAY May 19. Activities include a five-kilometer fun run at 8:30 a.m. and a bike ride at 11:30 a.m. Registration required for both. Hot air balloons (tethered to the ground), from 12:30 to 3 p.m., will give visitors a chance to see the farm from several hundred feet up.


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