Learning to be good stewards of the earth through the environmental riches of N.J.

OK, New Yorkers, I have one thing to say to you: What exit?

Now that we have a park in our Garden State that is three times the size of your Central Park, we know you bridge-and-tunnel types will be visiting often.

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

OK, New Yorkers, I have one thing to say to you: What exit?

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Now that we have a park in our Garden State that is three times the size of your Central Park, we know you bridge-and-tunnel types will be visiting often.

Densely populated New Jersey may have its share of oil refineries and strip malls, but Duke Farms in Hillsborough is proof of our dedication to open space, land preservation, sustainability and native plants.

In May, after a $45 million facelift, Duke Farms opened its new orientation center, offering greater public access to the core area of almost 1,000 acres of the property. Its mission: to teach us to be good stewards of the earth.

I recently toured the site on bicycle. The 12 miles of bike trails are, for the most part, paved, and the 18 miles of walking trails have mulch or fine red gravel; cyclists are discouraged from using the walking trails. If you aren’t up to biking or walking, trams are available. Come winter, Duke Farms will be a cross-country skier’s wonderland — if we ever get snow.

The life of Doris Duke

One inevitably ponders what it might have been like to have been Doris Duke, “the world’s richest girl” after the 1925 death of her father, tobacco and hydroelectric power magnate James Buchanan Duke. Pictures show her swimming in the azure indoor pool flanked by a Thai temple gable with mirrored tiles, her German shepherds splashing about in the mosaic-tiled fountain.

She traveled the world to pursue journalistic interests and collect Islamic and Southeast Asian art and artifacts, including her very own Thai temple. She was even a surfing champion.

It was the life: Composing jazz on her Steinway, and playing for the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Martha Graham, Burt Reynolds, Jackie O and Imelda Marcos; practicing dance with Martha Graham in the theater of her “Hollywood wing”; designing her very own Shangri La in Honolulu to house all that Islamic art she collected over 60 years; jet-setting from residences in Newport, R.I., to Los Angeles, Hawaii and New Jersey; jaunting off to Africa on safari; or just horsing around the farm, talking to her camels.

For all those indulgences, Doris was an extraordinary philanthropist, giving away $400 million in her lifetime. And her will continues to make her wealth accessible, through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, to “improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and the prevention of child abuse,” as well as the preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke’s properties.

Conservation and the health of the environment

The life-long environmentalist’s will states that Duke Farms serve as a haven for native flora and fauna and be used for research related to conservation and the health of the environment.

Since 1964, when Doris (1912-1993) opened the public display gardens, visitors have had the good fortune to experience Shangri La in central New Jersey. The Gardens of the Nations, housed in the 1917 Conservatory —under an acre of glass — included 11 separate garden rooms, each housing the flowers of different nations. (The international gardens have been replaced with native plants, grown for research, more in keeping with today’s environmental mission.)

During his lifetime, “Buck” was committed to opening the property as a public park, but ultimately vandalism forced him to close it. In 2003, Duke Farms opened the park-like grounds, with 700 acres of waterfalls, lakes, statues, winding roads, wildlife habitats and farmland, for public tours.

Duke Farms hosted the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2004, but heavy rains created a parking fiasco, and both organizations agreed it was not a suitable site for such an event. And in 2005, for a two-year period only, the country manor house was open for tours while a strategic plan was underway to better use the property. Doris’s will stipulated that the 2,700-acre bucolic retreat should not be used as a museum but for conservation and environmental and horticultural education.

Among the extravagances seen during my 2005 visit were, in the Hollywood wing, a pool flanked by a hand-built Thai canoe, a projection room, art deco tap room, 500-foot foyer with porthole windows criss-crossed by diamond-shaped grilles, and the indoor clay tennis court filled with the parts collected to build Duke’s royal Thai temple. (In the 1960s, a Thai carpenter had been hired to build it from the more than 2,000 pieces of art, houses and artifacts, but died before the project got underway. After Hurricane Floyd, the pieces floated in water. A recent New York Times article reported the temple has since been auctioned off.)

Today, thanks to habitat restoration, grassland birds such as the bobolink, Savannah sparrow and Eastern meadowlark can be sighted here. Snapper turtles and flying squirrels have returned, and native witch hazel and sassafras have been reintroduced.

Visitors can cool off in the orientation center, an adaptive reuse of the 22,000-square-foot farm barn, and learn about the history.

Buck’s vision

In 1883, Buck, who made his first fortune founding the American Tobacco Co., began buying 37 parcels of farmland. Buck’s vision: to create a fully operational farm reminiscent of the North Carolina Piedmont where he grew up. With an office in Manhattan and a railroad spur that came right up to his Hillsborough door, he had a stress-free commute.

The train could also bring produce from Hillsborough to New York. 

Central New Jersey is flat, so Buck hired James Greenleaf, in the design firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, to transform the initial 1,700 acres into an undulating paradise. Olmstead, along with Calvert Vaux, created the English pastoral landscape in Manhattan that is Central Park, as well as Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. (Olmstead also designed Trenton’s Cadwalader Park.)

Buck made his second fortune in hydropower — it’s always a good idea to have another entrepreneurial avenue when the Supreme Court busts up your monopoly, as it did with the American Tobacco Co. The man for whom Duke University is named began to dabble in hydroelectricity on his country gentleman’s estate.

The Hillsborough property is rimmed by the Raritan River, and landscapers dug out 11 lakes, using the fill to create rolling hills. The water was pumped up to lakes on the highest hills, then cascaded its way down man-made waterfalls, went back up through 35 fountains, and down again to the river, where it would start all over. 

A magnificent open-air stone structure with trumpet vines climbing its walls was once the hay barn, built in 1900. After it burned in 1915, Doris turned it into a sculpture garden, filling it with classical bronze and marble statuary.

Buck dreamed of building a magnificent mansion on the hill. A classical limestone balustrade and stepped terrace were built with a grand view, but for reasons only speculated on, Buck never finished it. The steel used for the structure was donated to the war effort. Visitors can still see the balustrade and terrace, where a picnic table beckons.

On his deathbed, Buck Duke was rumored to have said to his daughter: Never trust anyone. If true, it is hard to believe she took him seriously, having left such gifts for us all.

There is no admission charge to visit Duke Farms, open every day except Wednesdays 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Duke Farms website lists many programs, for which a fee is charged.


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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