Law & Justice

Preservationists Fighting to Save Mansion Say Doris Duke Wouldn't Approve of Demolition Plans

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The demolition of the Doris Duke mansion is being delayed pending the outcome of a Feb. 26 court hearing in Somerville.  Credits: Courtesy Duke Farms Foundation
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HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - A determined group of preservationists working to prevent the demolition of the Doris Duke estate says the wealthy heiress did much during her lifetime to demonstrate that she wanted to preserve the mansion for public use after her death.

DORIS - Demolition Of Residence Is Senseless - said evidene exists that the "richest woman in the world" had intended to preserve her grand estate home, according to Nancy Piwowar, a local historian and DORIS member.

"The commitment of Doris Duke towards preservation both at her home and around the world is uncontroverted," said Nancy Piwowar, local history advocate and DORIS member, "In Doris Duke’s will, she intended her home to be occupied by either an agricultural college or by her foundation.  She wanted the estate used for wildlife, flora and fauna.  Never in her wildest dreams would she think her beloved home would be destroyed and her intentions ignored by the very foundation she established to protect her legacy, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Duke Farms Foundation."

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The township Historical Preservation Commission approved an application by the Duke Farms Foundation to demolish the mansion by a 6-1 vote in October following a series of public hearings that began last summer; DORIS has been fighting that decision and has filed several lawsuits to overturn that decision.

The foundation has agreed to hold off on the demolition until oral arguments are heard on the most recent lawsuit is by Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone in Somerville on Friday, Feb. 26 at 10 a.m..

Over the years, lawsuits have been filed that show Doris Duke's intended to protect the home and property, according to Piwowar.

  "A little known lawsuit involved Doris Duke and her mother," Piwowar said. "At 14 years old, Doris Duke successfully sued her mother and the other executors of her father’s estate.  She wanted to operate the Duke estate, which her father, the late James B. Duke, left her in his will.  Her mother and the executors wanted to dispose of the property. Doris Duke wanted to preserve the property and continue to live on the estate.  Doris Duke won the lawsuit and the title of the property was transferred into her name.  These actions clearly demonstrate her dedication and love of her home and the estate."

In 1987, Doris Duke nominated her home to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing further evidence that she wanted to maintain and preserve the mansion, Piwowar said.

"Doris Duke’s nomination of her own property to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 demonstrated that she had a long and lasting legacy of preserving history.  The 1987 nomination that Doris Duke submitted to the State of NJ, prepared by Ursula Brecknell, made her wishes abundantly known with this excerpt: 'It is her intention to maintain the entire property in perpetuity,'" said Ms. Piwowar. "To Doris Duke, Duke Farms was her ancestral home, her residence, the place where she voted, and where she expected her home to be preserved in perpetuity."

Attorney David Brook, a township resident and DORIS supporter, maintains that Duke’s wishes are being violated by the organization that she endowed. Brook continues to represent the preservationists and will argue their case in court Feb. 26.

“If Duke Farms Foundation were true stewards of the Duke legacy, they would preserve the residence and honor her will," Brook said.  "Here at the Duke Estate, Doris Duke took direct action to preserve the estate's boundary wall.  Just think how'd she feel about the walls of her home being demolished?

“It is clear looking at the actions of Doris Duke over the years and in her intentions, she would not want her house destroyed,” he added. “The Duke Foundations have an obligation to withdraw their demolition permit and restore the Duke residence." 

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