Law & Justice

Federal Historic Preservation Authority Supports Preservationists to Overturn Decision to Demolish Doris Duke Mansion

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The Doris Duke Mansion as depicted on a 1915 postcard.
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HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Time is running short, but the attorney for a determined group of preservationists trying to save the Doris Duke estate from the wrecker’s ball says letters received Feb. 19 from two federal agencies provide crucial counterpoints to expert testimony that led to a 6-1 vote approving a demolition permit approved by the township’s Historic Commission in October, 2015.

Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone will preside at a 10 a.m. hearing in Somerville Friday, Feb. 27 at which the attorney for DORIS – Demolition of Residence is Senseless – hopes to introduce those letters into the record.

David Brook, a township resident that represents DORIS, has been waging an aggressive campaign against the township following the vote by the township Historic Commission to approve a demolition permit sought by the Doris Duke Foundation.

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Brook has filed a supplement to his briefing papers with Judge Ciccone and lawyers representing the township and the Doris Duke Foundation.

Brook maintains that some of the key testimony provided by the Duke Foundation’s expert during a series of hearings held by the Historic Commission last year was inaccurate, and that the  commission’s ultimate decision was based on flawed information.

The two letters received Feb. 19 from Elizabeth S. Merritt, Deputy General Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and William C. Bolger, National Landmarks Program Manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service question the testimony provided by Dr. Emily Cooperman, according to Brook.

The Foundation maintains that the architectural integrity of the 67,000 square foot mansion, built in the late 19th century, was compromised by remodeling and additions over a period of time by the tobacco heiress, who assumed ownership of the property in 1932 after a contentious custody battle with her mother. Her father, industrialist James Buchanan Duke died in 1925.

Those alterations, according to the Foundation, disqualify the mansion for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Foundation last month agreed to delay the demolition until after Ciccone has an opportunity to weigh both arguments.

 “An immensely important development has just occurred,” Brook said. “The United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation both issued letters confirming the historical significance of the Doris Duke Mansion.”

"This is an incredibly significant legal analysis provided by a federal government national expert of historic preservation,” Brook said.  “The National Park Service interprets these laws for all Americans and it has made some dramatically critical comments on the errors in the testimony provided by Duke Farms.

"According to this national authority, the testimony of the Duke Farms Foundation's expert witness is discredited," Brook said.  "The testimony was not 'based on a proper interpretation of the regulations and guidance issued by the National Park Service regarding the National Register of Historic Places.'  The legal analysis in the letter supports the basis of the DORIS lawsuit claim.

"It has always been our position,” Brook continued, “which is now supported by the National Park Service, that the Doris Duke Mansion is historic and worthy of preservation and that the Historic Commission relied upon misinformation provided by Duke Farms.

“We hope to now convince the Judge to act to send the case back to the Historic Commission for a re-hearing so that they act in accordance with the law," Brook said.

Bolger had attended one of the Historic Commission hearings last year.

 "Mr. Bolger is clear about the historical significance of the Doris Duke Mansion,” Brook said.

In his letter, Bolger writes:

“Regardless of what one thinks of the house as a work of architecture, its standing as a component that contributes to the overall integrity of the historic district that it is a part of is beyond dispute, and its demolition will certainly represent a loss of one of the historic district’s most distinctive, and perhaps most important, features.’ "

"It's remarkable that the National Trust for Historic Preservation is also following the Doris Duke Mansion saga and seeking advice from the federal government.  The organization characterizes Mr. Bolger as having the 'authoritative insight' to evaluate the historical significance of the Doris Duke Mansion," said Nancy Piwowar, local history advocate and DORIS member.

The Doris Duke estate, which borders Route 206 south, encompasses more than 2,700 acres. The Foundation maintains the property as an ecological preserve, with tours and educational programs offered to the public year ‘round.

The Foundation has spent millions refurbishing the Farm Barn which now serves as the Visitor’s Center. 

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