By Heather Haddon
Wall Street Journal
May 2, 2012

Bucolic Grounds Become Public Park, Conservation Center

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J.—For years here amid the gentle hills of the Raritan River valley in suburban New Jersey, a 2,740-acre estate that once provided the setting for Doris Duke’s ornamental gardens has largely been kept private.

Now, after years of debate about how to handle the massive plot formerly owned by one of the world’s richest women, the bucolic grounds known as Duke Farms are set to open to the public May 19 and become one of the largest privately owned public spaces in the U.S., estate officials said.

A $50 million effort has transformed the estate 50 miles southwest of Manhattan from a 119-year-old gentleman’s farm into a modern experiment in environmental conservation and open-space management.

“It’s a rare resource,” said John Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Properties and chairman of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,which funds Duke Farms. “It represents a time when New Jersey was an agricultural state.”

Duke Farms won’t be a traditional park. For one, it will be huge—the part accessible to the public is four times as large as Disneyland.

While entry will be free, and the public is welcome six days a week, there will be no wardens or trash cans. Dogs, music and even weddings are prohibited.

The facility generates its own power with an array of solar panels, collects gallons of rain water for use with landscaping and features one of the few constructed wetlands in the state to purify waste water. It even has a “green” parking lot that filters toxic runoff into waterways.

The idea, Duke foundation officials said, is to nurture and promote the state’s native flora and fauna. In that spirit, gone is much of the manicured Great Lawn, replaced by a new, wild Great Meadow. Landscapers ripped out 80types of invasive species, installed deer fencing and let nature take its course.

“It’s absolutely unusual,” said Glen Likus, a New Jersey contractor who built the facility’s wetlands. “There are few people who are doing this and willing to spend the money to do it properly.”
The effort hasn’t been cheap, easy or predictable. And the foundation’s high-powered trustees disagreed for years about the project, with some arguing the $250 million estate should be sold to support the $2 billion foundation.

But county officials wanted to resume public access to the estate. It was once called the “Central Park of Somerset County,” and there was hope of turning it into a public park with recreational facilities.
“It always presented an extraordinary opportunity to enhance the county,” said former Gov. Christie Whitman, who discussed making it a park with Ms. Duke before she died in 1992.

But Ms. Duke’s will stated that the property be used “to protect endangered species” and conduct “horticultural research.” In 2006, the foundation’s board decided to use the estate to promote environmental conservation, green technology and sustainable agriculture.

“We are demonstrating something that might be useful for other people around the world in how to be an environmental steward. Those things are not clearly understood,” said Mr. Zuccotti, whose experience with privately owned public space extends to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, the site of months of protests in 2011.

Since Duke Farms was founded in 1893, the estate has cycled between being open and closed to the public.

James “Buck” Duke, a tobacco magnate who founded Duke University, purchased 40 farms near the Raritan River to fulfill his dream of a pastoral estate near New York City. He hired Frederick Olmsted’s civil engineer, James Greenleaf, to design what was one of the earliest and most prominent examples of lagoon landscaping, with interconnecting canals and lakes providing the estate’s water. Two million trees and shrubs were planted, and 35 fountains modeled after those Mr. Duke saw in Europe were installed.A statue and nursery building at the Duke estate. The property is reopening to the public this month.

Mr. Duke opened his estate to the public in 1899 but shut it in 1915 after one of his prized stone barns was set on fire. After his death in 1925, his only child, 13-year-old Doris, sued her mother to prevent its sale and took over. Ms. Duke—an eccentric socialite and lifelong environmentalist who was a competitive surfer and jazz pianist—built a series of ornamental gardens based on her world-wide travels.
She kept the estate private until 1964 when she opened the gardens for paid, private tours.

Private bus tours of the larger estate have been allowed since 2003, and it hosted the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2004. But all public access ended in 2008.

When Duke Farms opens this month, visitors can bike, walk and picnic wherever they want. A Beaux-Arts barn will host an orientation center.

New Jersey artists have requested visits, and some adventure-seekers have started showing up outside the property ahead of the official opening.
Trustees hope the public will treat the property respectfully.

“Stewardship costs a lot of money,” said Ed Henry, president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “But some of the things being done out here are very rare.”