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Court Ruling Cripples Effort in Hillsborough to Save Doris Duke Mansion from Demolition

Vintage postcard shows the Duke estate as it appeared in 1915
DORIS - Destruction of Mansion is Senseless - was organized in July, 2015 by residents opposed to the demolition.
Hillsborough resident and attorney David Brook has been leading the fight to save the Duke estate from demolition. Credits: Rod Hirsch

SOMERVILLE, NJ – A ruling handed down by Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone Friday effectively derails efforts by a Hillsborough grass roots organization to save the Doris Duke estate from demolition.

DORIS – Demolition of Residence is Senseless – has been waging a non-stop battle with the Dukes Farm Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Hillsborough Township and the township’s Historic Preservation Commission since July, when the foundation first applied for a demolition permit to knock down the 67,000 square-foot mansion.

David Brook, the outspoken attorney representing DORIS, expects to file an appeal in the Appellate Division early next week.

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However, that may be too late.

“Duke can do whatever they want now,” Brook said just hours after receiving the court decision. “They have the demolition permit. If the equipment is there, they can go out there tonight and start knocking it down.

“I would like to believe the system is set up to correct errors,” Brook said, “but I think the system failed.”

Brook, along with William J. Willard, the attorney for Hillsborough Township, and Jeffrey T. LaRosa, attorney for the Duke Farms Foundation spent one hour in Ciccone’s courtroom Feb. 26.

DORIS was hoping that Ciccone would overturn some of the actions taken by the HPC, and return their appeal to the township board for reconsideration.

“The Court finds that the Township neither abused its discretion, nor deprived Plaintiffs of due process,” Ciccone wrote in her seven-page opinion.

At one time, the Duke mansion was the centerpiece of the estate, which spreads across 2,700 acres fronting on Route 206 South. Doris Duke inherited the property and her father’s tobacco fortune after a bitter custody battle with her mother. James Buchanan Duke died in 1925.

Duke remodeled the mansion, adding substantial square footage to the building. She died in 1993. It has not been occupied since 2008 and has fallen into disrepair.

LaRosa told Ciccone the foundation estimates it would cost upwards of $20M to restore the mansion and that the building does not conform to the overall mission of the foundation, which continues to transform the property into an ecological preserve and nature education center. More than 500,000 visitors come to Duke Farms annually.

The mansion has been stripped of all significant architectural elements, including fountains, fireplace mantels, panels made from exotic woods, chandeliers, sconces and other fixtures; all were sold at auction.

LaRosa has also argued that the mansion’s historic significance was compromised by the alterations and additions made to the original structure over the years.

Brook maintains the mansion does belong on the National Registry of Historic Places, and has referred to a voluminous application completed by Duke in 1986 - but never submitted to the agency - seeking historic status for the estate and surrounding property.

DORIS has offered testimony and filed documents at several HPC meetings in September and October that faulted procedures, claimed violation of open public meeting laws and questioned the credibility of testimony from an expert witness used by the commission to make its determination.

The HPC voted 6-1 to approve the demolition permit.

DORIS repeated accusations at the Feb. 26 hearing before Ciccone that the process was flawed and that the actions taken by the HPC were “arbitrary and capricious.”

However, Ciccone did not find fault with the board’s decision granting the demolition permit, or the process leading to that determination.

“HTHPC had adequate basis in fact and opinion to approve the demolition and acted in conformity with the appropriate law when approving DFF’s application. It would be inappropriate for the Court to substitute its own judgment of the evidence for the judgment of local citizens with an intimate knowledge of the community’s interest in preserving historic sites.”

“Disturbing, disturbing, disturbing,” Brook said. “This is an erroneous decision.”

Other highlights from Ciccone’s ruling:

“Plaintiffs contend that the Commission hearings and the Commission’s conclusions were predetermined. Plaintiffs allege that there was no effort on the part of this Commission to attempt in any fashion to honestly and with due consideration take in information and make a decision based on the record and conduct a proper application of the record to the requirements in the Municipal Ordinance.

“Plaintiffs’ allegations lack support in the form of proofs. Plaintiffs have produced no evidence that indicates that the hearing process was a ‘sham proceeding’ driven by ‘politics and money,’ “

The Court finds that the Township neither abused its discretion, nor deprived Plaintiffs of due process.”

“This is so discouraging,” Brook said. Everyone put their heart and soul into it. We’re all so discouraged.”  

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