By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor
People who oppose the demolition of the home of deceased Golden Age philanthropist Doris Duke are weighing their legal options following the decision of the Hillsborough Historic Preservation Commission on Thursday, Oct. 15.
The objectors will likely attend the Oct. 29 meeting of the commission, when a resolution memorializing the 6-1 decision will be read, possibly discussed and likely passed easily.
Once that is passed, Duke Farms will have the paperwork to go to the building inspector and seek the permit to demolish the 65,000-square-foot main residence on the 2,700-acre estate that is now primarily an environmental preserve. The home has been closed to the public since 1993.
After 90 minutes of public comment and an hour of lawyers’ summations, the commission voted, 6-1, to grant the permit for the sprawling home, which was purchased by James Buchannan Duke in 1893 and underwent several alterations, renovations and sprawling additions, such as an indoor tennis court, theater and indoor pool.
The only ‘no’ vote came from commission member Tim Stollery, who said, “History will judge us, guys, and I think you are making a mistake.”
The Preservation Commission heard comments from 33 members of the public, including Doris Duke Charitable Foundation President Edward P. Henry, who testified that the foundation’s study of potential adaptive reuses found none that would fit in with the foundation’s mission for property.
About three-quarters of the public comments came in personal, sometimes emotional, pleas from individuals who beseeched the board to allow the mansion to stay and be fixed up.
Testimony included personal pleas that demolition would be antithetical to Ms. Duke’s wishes because she considered Hillsborough to first among all of her residences in the world, including Hawaii, California and Newport, Rhode Island. Ms. Duke died in 1991.
Township resident David Brook, acting as the attorney for the objectors, said Monday the commission’s memorializing resolution should note findings of fact — putting into words what was generally discussed in a half-hour of comments by commission members.
Throughout the case, Mr. Brook seemed to be building a case for appeal, and what is included in the resolution could be seen as a summary of the commission’s thinking.
Mr. Brook said Monday he was uncertain whether the commission’s decision could be appealed by an objector. The relevant portion of the township administrative code grants the right of an appeal to the party seeking the demolition permit, but is silent on whether another side has rights.
Mr. Brook said Monday he was also unsure if the building department’s issuance of a permit can be appealed to a township body like the Board of Adjustment, or whether the only remedy is to proceed through the courts.
Mr. Brook used his summation last week to urge a vote against demolition, or at least grant a six-month “cooling off” period (allowed in the code) in which Duke Farms and community volunteers could discuss some way to convert the resident to another use.
He said the regulating code specifically noted that historic demolitions “shall be discouraged” and allowed only as a last resort.
“Demolition is like extinction,” he told the board.
He argued that Duke Farms, through its charitable foundation and its acts to open the property to the public for free, can’t be considered a private property.
Most preservation commission members agreed with Duke Farms that the residence — whose core circa-1860s farmhouse was bought by J.B. Duke in 1893 — was not historically significant on its own. Members said they believed the Duke family legacy resided in the entire property, which has been largely preserved by a charitable foundation as a free, public preserve to serve as a model of environmental stewardship and sustainability.
Duke Farms argued that many additions and renovations ruined the home’s architectural significance. It said the estimated $10 million to $20 million to restore the property could be used on renovating the Coach Barn elsewhere on the property for conferences and meetings, and opening up the 50 acres or so around the house to the public.
Similar to the Sept. 24 meeting, many objectors wearing red DORIS stickers for Demolition Of Residence Is Senseless, sat on one side of the room and about blue-shirted Duke Farms employees sat on the other.
Duke Farms Executive Director Michael Catania estimated after the meeting that it would take one to two months to take down the building, likely this winter.
Commission member Greg Gillette said Duke Farms had brought “compelling testimony” that the house by itself was insignificant and that the Duke family legacy was contained within the whole property.
Duke Farms has spent an estimated $50 million to preserve and restore 25 buildings on the property, including the Farm Barn as a visitor center and administrative offices and the orchid garden building. It has built a large community garden, started incubator farms and opened the grounds for walking and bicycling.
Once the house is removed, that part of the estate will be opened to a bicycle and pedestrian path linking to the Nevius Street bridge into Raritan Borough, said Willard Bergman Jr., attorney for Duke Farms.
Mr. Stollery said Doris Duke had properties round the world, but considered Hillsborough her home. The house “may be a hodgepodge or a white elephant, but it’s Doris Duke’s white elephant,” he said.
At the start of the meeting, the commission rejected Mr. Brook’s appeal to allow him to present more testimony. He said he had requested the township provide a tax or finance officer to say there was no mechanism for a payment in lieu of taxes to the township to make up for the lost ratable. The amount would be on the order of $150,000 or more a year. Mr. Bergman said there didn’t have to be a legal agreement; Duke Farms could, and would, simply sit down and write a check, he said.
Mr. Brook said he also wanted to present a National Parks Service representative, an architect to talk about adaptive reuses and a heritage tourism expert.
Among the public who spoke, James Trynosky, an engineer with the Falcon Group in Bridgewater, said his firm stood ready to donate engineering services to evaluate restoration possibilities. He said Falcon hoped to spur other firms to volunteer services and goods.
“Simply put, it can’t hurt to try,” he said.
Some Duke Farms employees and volunteers at the property testified that Duke should be allowed to proceed with the demolition. Tracy Ciccatelli said the public could enjoy “champion trees” not fenced off. Tanya Sulikowski, manager of education programs, said there would an educational benefit to opening up the area around the house.
Debra Thomas, a former Raritan Borough Planning Board member, said she trusted Duke officials, and said the family legacy “could be honored in other ways.”
Opponents like Dale Gordon of Hillsborough argued that Duke Farms hadn’t met the considerations laid out in the ordinance. He said Duke Farms should have presented its experts to say studies showed the building to be unusable, instead of relying on the testimony of Mr. Catania.
Elisabeth McConville of Bridgewater, who testified last month she was a personal assistant to Miss Duke for many years, asked rhetorically why the property couldn’t be turned into a project like the county-owned Natirar, the former home of the King of Morocco, in Peapack-Gladstone.
Shangar Nandra, a Hillsborough resident, said an admission fee and proceeds of sales from a gift shop could raise millions per year to pay for a restoration.
Carl Suk, a former county resident now in Kentucky, said his online petition had garnered more than 3,800 signatures. He said 76 percent were from New Jersey, and 42 percent from the county. He said 747 were from Hillsborough alone.
He said history would be destroyed if the house were lost. “The property without the main house is like a fish out of water,” he said.
Somerset County historian Jessie Havens equated the Dukes with the likes of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. She said the property was the “greatest expression of Golden Age aspiration that money could buy.”
Susan Ochse said the foundation’s work to preserve and open the estate was wonderful, but the restoration of the house “would be the icing on the cake, with a cherry on top and sprinkles, too.”
By Gene Robbins, Managing Editor