HILLSBOROUGH: Group battling to preserve Doris Duke’s mansion

By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
Red “DORIS” lawn signs are popping up around Hillsborough, hinting at a nascent groundswell to try to save the former residence of heiress Doris Duke from being demolished.
David Brook, a leader of Demolition of Residence is Senseless, said the group that opposes Duke Farms’ application for a permit to raze the onetime home of the daughter and inheritor of the Duke tobacco fortune. She lived a life of philanthropy with particular interests in horticulture and art.
Mr. Brook said his group will present its own architectural expert to rebut testimony that the 65,000-square-foot home on the 2,500-acre Duke Farms estate off Route 206 in the northern part of the township isn’t particularly historically or architecturally significant.
The Duke Farms Foundation must gain approval of the demolition from the Historic Preservation Commission. The house sits in one of the township’s historic districts. A public hearing on the request continues at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, Sept. 24, in the township municipal building on South Branch Road.
Mr. Brook said the group will present an expert who will testify that the home, which has been described as deteriorating after being vacant for more than 20 years, is historic. Saving the house, and restoring it to some adaptive reuse, could also trigger an economic spurt in the central Jersey region, he said.
In the first session of the hearing on July 30, Duke Farms executive director Michael Catania said the foundation wishes to tear down the building, which might cost $10 million to $20 million to repair and bring to a productive use.
Mr. Catania said the foundation doesn’t see the home as fitting into its modern vision of using the Duke estate, which James Buchannan Duke assembled from purchased farms in the late 1800s, as an example of environmental preservation and sustainability.
Instead the foundation wishes to use its resources to restore the Coach Barn elsewhere on the property and use it for public programs and meetings. Mr. Catania said a longer-term vision is to open up the portion of the estate to connect to a foot/bike trail toward the Raritan River and into the borough of Raritan.
Mr. Brook said Duke Farms purposely let the house fall apart through neglect, and now is using that dilapidation as an excuse to tear the home down.
He said Duke Farms “made the decision to bury Doris Duke a second time, for some reason, and eliminate her presence from the property.”
He and his group want alternatives to be considered. He said the house could be part of an attraction that could change the economic interest of the township and immediate surroundings.
“We’ll miss an opportunity if we tear it down,” he said.
Demolition, he said, “is like extinction.” Demolition, he said, “is for lazy people.”
In July Duke Farms presented architectural historian Emily Cooperman, who said that the home, whose core is an 1868 renovated farmhouse, had no particular architectural uniqueness because it has been subjected to many renovations and additions over the years.
Mr. Brook said Duke Farms itself petitioned for historic status of the house and property in 1987 when it was trying to fight encroachment, particularly of the iconic stone wall around the property, by a widening project of Route 206.
He said Doris Duke was an active preservationist and a move to demolish her New Jersey home would disrespect her memory.
Mr. Brook said DORIS has a core group of 12 to 15 people, but has attracted wide support. An online petition to save the house has drawn more than 3,000 signatures.
He said he saw the July 30 meeting like the beginning of a trial.
“Doris Duke’s house is on trial right now,” he said. The Historic Preservation Commission only heard one side of the story, he said, and DORIS aims to present the other. 