The Secret Garden is a powerful and mysterious icon in the western imagination. In 1893 tobacco millionaire James Buchanan Duke began to create — in the swampy farmlands of New Jersey — a grand and scenic property designed to imitate the North Carolina Piedmont farmlands of his childhood. It was 20 years before Frances Hodgson Burnett would publish her classic story about a garden that could restore physical and spiritual health to a suffering child of privilege.
Like the special brand of American nobility that they became, Duke and his daughter and heir, Doris, occupied their 2,700-acre "secret" Hillsborough garden for well-nigh 100 years. Meanwhile the rest of us, like traditional peasantry, only dreamed of what lay beyond those tantalizing miles of rock walls bordering Route 206 in Hillsborough. The rubble style walls do indeed tell a story: they are constructed of stone that James Duke had quarried in Hunterdon County.
But all that is in the past. Now, after decades of virtual seclusion each and every one of us can seek renewal with a tour of the estate’s 700-acre central park, an extravagantly beautiful man-made landscape within the vast estate known as Duke Farms. It was opened to the public this June for the first time in 75 years. Tour guides now lead groups of up to 30 people on an open-sided trolley tour through some of the 30-miles of scenic roads that wind through the property. Tours are offered three times a day, Wednesday through Sunday, at 11 a.m., 2, and 3:30 p.m. Tours are by advance reservation only, through Sunday, November 16.
The park is a treasure trove of man-made lakes, scenic meadows, ornamental fountains, woodlands, bridges, and waterfalls. The spectacular estate included nine man-made lakes, 35 fountains (18 of which are still functional), 10 waterfalls, 54 bridges, extensive gardens, and several miles of stone walls. All were enjoyed by the lifelong philanthropist Doris Duke who, when she died in 1993, left behind both wealth and controversy. Like almost everything in her complicated life, both the cause of death and the distribution of her estate, were contested — dragged through the press and made-for-T.V. movies.
The tour begins on the far side of Duke Farms stone guard house where we were waved through to the nearby parking lot and a sheltered gazebo, a gathering spot for visitors to be transported to the Visitors Center. The half-timbered oversize cottage, newly enlarged for the public traffic, still feels like a baronial hunting lodge. The huge stone fireplace is already familiar to those who have visited the indoor greenhouses during the winter months. A glamour shot of Doris worthy of any ’30s Hollywood diva now hangs in the visitors center.
Priscilla Brendler, the new program director of the Duke Farms Foundation, led our trolley tour through the emerald-green grounds on a peerless, sunny summer day. On the job less than six months, Brendler was recruited from the National Park Service. Even though she works with a comprehensive prepared description, she is open to any and all questions about the new venture.
Duke Farms began existence as 37 parcels of flat New Jersey farmland and swamp, purchased by James Buchanan "Buck" Duke. With a railroad spur running right onto the property, Duke could comfortably commute by private train car from Hillsborough to his offices in New York City.
The family tobacco fortune began with Buck’s father, Washington Duke, near Durham, South Carolina, where he farmed tobacco and manufactured cigarettes. Both Buck and his brother Benjamin went into the family business. Buck opened a branch of the family’s cigarette factory in New York City in 1883 and founded the American Tobacco company in 1890. In 1905 the brothers co-founded the Southern Power Company (now Duke Power, the largest in the south). Buck eventually endowed the college in Durham that was renamed for him.
In 1907 Buck married his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman, a widow, and their only child, Doris, was born in Manhattan in 1912. Buck Duke doted on Doris until his death in 1925. He was 69 years old and Doris was just 12. Doris inherited most of her father’s $300 million estate and at age 21, she established her first foundation, which became the Doris Duke Foundation. It is estimated she gave away more than $400 million (in today’s dollars) during her lifetime. But give as she might, by the time she died in Beverly Hills in 1993 at the ripe old age of 80, her wealth had reached $1.7 billion. We’re told she was the richest woman in world.
No expense was spared for Buck Duke’s private retreat, and over the years legions of gardeners have kept the grounds in mint condition. We half expect to see Buck Duke himself stalking the grounds, silver-tipped cane in hand.
Buck had all the boulders brought in, and he dug lakes out of his fields, using the excavated dirt to build picturesque hills and waterfalls. Among the landscape architects recruited to help transform the property was James Greenleaf, a member of the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, the esteemed designer of Central Park in New York, Cadwalader Park in Trenton, and the Lawrenceville School.
Later Buck turned his attention to hydroelectric power and tinkered with his own plant on the Raritan River, building an underground system of pipes, valves, and drains that bring water from the river to feed the nine artificial lakes and the greenhouses.
The greenhouses at Duke Farms were built between 1909 and 1917 to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the estate. They were later used by Doris for orchid, plant, and flower propagation. In 1958, she began a six-year process of transforming the greenhouses into elaborate display gardens, each with a national theme: the Duke Gardens of Nations. Duke traveled the globe seeking specimens and design ideas to complete the floral showcase that thrives under an acre of glass. Opened to the public 1964, about 35,000 visitors each year have toured the indoor gardens during their October through May season.
Back in its heyday, the public was also invited onto the property, to walk around and to picnic at Duke Farms. He even hired a constable control the visitors’ "shenanigans and mischievous behavior." But the party ended in 1915 when a weekend touring group of several dozen cars drove up on his manicured front lawn, leaving ruts and picnic debris strewn around. The public was banished — until now.
#h#Taking the Tour#/h#
Approaching the visitors center, a formal allee of pin oaks and blue spruce London plane trees gives way to rustic features and picturesque views. A ruined stone barn, built in 1902, burned down in 1915 but was kept as a perfectly picturesque ruin. The trolley passes right through the openings where the big barn doors once hung into a meadow-like enclosure within the roofless structure, hung with trumpet vines and studded with classical statuary.
Hundreds of thousands of trees were planted here, many of them exotic. We come upon some wonderfully gnarled 100-year-old Flowering Indian Bean Trees that line one of the park’s stone-balustraded bridges.
The park is home to a constantly changing array of wild birds, including eagles, owls, wild turkey, and osprey. Its wildlife population includes 100 deer, dozens of foxes, a dozen coyotes, muskrat, and many other creatures.
The park’s numerous ponds are spread out, quietly teasing the would-be angler. Stocked by Buck at the turn of the 20th century, they are home to 10-pound bass and giant catfish, all lurking beneath the placid surface in perfect immunity. Flags bloom along the banks of the ponds that also host great blue herons, egrets, cormorants, and geese. Snapping turtles and mute swans complete the picture.
Not only is the Dukes’ main house not on the tour, but it can only be glimpsed from the trolley. As we approach, a group of three deer, blissfully grazing in tall meadow grass, raise their heads, prick up their ears, and turn to face us. We view the main house, off in the distance, beyond the huge spreading trees, on the far side of a great greensward. The 50-room mansion, a converted and vastly enlarged farmhouse, boasts only "eclectic" architectural and decorative features. The "Hollywood Wing" Doris added in 1932, includes the indoor pool and bowling alley. The house has been closed since her death, Brendler tells us, and today it is used primarily as the archivist’s office and for storage.
The tour does include a stop at the "ruin" on the hill, the extensive stone and concrete foundations of a mansion Buck Duke spent years planning. The first version was a huge French chateau to be built for his first wife. After that divorce, a new design was created for his second wife, Doris’ mother. But with a marriage on the rocks, World War I came along and Buck abandoned the project, donating the steel to the nation’s war effort. Like the stone barn, the fortress-like foundations resemble a study by an English romantic painter seeking the "sublime" in art.
The tour continues to the Mermaid Pool, a perfectly round stone basin with a fountain at its center, where Doris Duke liked to swim. She also had an indoor pool and tennis courts in the big house.
Duke Farms’ striking Queen Anne style coach barn, with its distinguished clock tower, is also on the trolley tour. This is where the Dukes kept their horses and Buck’s collection of horseless carriages, his Model T’s. Doris Duke once rode the parks sylvan riding trails. Today it is Princess, a 15-year-old Bactrian camel, who rules over the corrals. She is one of a pair of camels Doris acquired when she purchased her Boeing 737 from a Middle Eastern sheik. Princess’s companion is now dead, she is kept company by a motley group of retired ponies, a donkey, and a draft horse.
Duke Farms was one of several homes maintained by Doris Duke during her restless and tumultuous life, the place where she devoted herself to orchid propagation, farming, and ecological concerns. Two others — Rough Point, her estate in Newport, Rhode Island, and Shangri La, her Hawaii retreat — also offer guided public tours. The ecological and conservation work continues today in Hillsborough. Rutgers’ Cook College has several research projects in progress; they include fencing back the deer from overgrazed areas to shelter native wildlife, studying deer-resistant plantings, and studying some of the property’s thriving blight-resistant trees. Throughout her life, Doris Duke traveled the globe, accompanied by an ever-changing entourage of husbands, lovers, and hangers-on, but few real friends. Educated in some of the best boarding schools, Doris spoke nine languages and was twice married, the second time, for just one year, to an infamous playboy from the Dominican Republic. Among her follies was Doris’s questionable adoption, at age 75, of a 35-year-old dancer she had grown close to spiritually and artistically. This "friend" was eventually disinherited when Doris decided that she, too, was no more than another gold-digger out to gain a slice of her fortune.
Today the mission of the Duke Foundation combines all Doris’s major interests: to improve the quality of people’s lives by nurturing the arts, conserving wildlife, seeking cures for diseases, and helping protect children from abuse and neglect. And she was not only a patron of the arts. Doris Duke was a jazz pianist and composer, student of modern dance, and singer with a gospel choir in Nutley.
Is it any wonder that Doris’s life at Duke Farms — beautiful as it is — was troubled? Her father’s most memorable advice, was are told, was to "Trust no one." The expression eventually became the title of a 1997 biography, written by former employee Ted Schwarz, "Trust No One: The Glamorous Life and Bizarre Death of Doris Duke."
In her late years, Doris became a recluse. Her life ended sadly in 1993, from a morphine overdose, at her Beverly Hills mansion. Her doctor was brought under suspicion of assisting her death. And although the suave butler she left in charge of her estate, Bernard Lafferty, was cleared of charges at the inquest that followed, he was removed as co-executor shortly before his own death just three years later. These years were consumed with tawdry rumor, legal maneuverings, a tumult that has gradually subsided, as the public moves on to bigger and more prurient money-sex-and-drugs scandals.
After 10 years, efforts to rehabilitate Doris Duke’s "bizarre" reputation are finally bearing fruit. Judging from the number of times the Duke Foundation name is solemnly invoked in connection with "worthy causes," Doris Duke has successfully navigated the path from lonely eccentric to "distinguished philanthropist." Perhaps we can chalk it up to the healing powers of her "Secret Garden."
Duke Farms Park Tour , 80 Route 206 South, Hillsborough, 908-722-3700. Public tours of a 700-acre private park area of the 2,700-acre estate known as Duke Farms. Tour guides will lead groups on a trolley tour through the scenic property that has not been open to the public for 75 years. By advance reservation only, $10.
Tours are offered three times daily, Wednesday to Sunday, at 11 a.m., 2, and 3:30 p.m., through Sunday, November 16. Tours are limited to 30 people each; children over age 12 are welcome. Limit of six tickets per purchaser. Arrive 20 minutes before the tour and allow two hours for the visit. At present, the tour is not easily wheelchair accessible.