Law & Justice

Attorneys Clash Over Fate of Doris Duke Mansion; Judge Will Rule Next Week

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This postcard depicts the Doris Duke Mansion as it appeared in 1915.
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SOMERVILLE, NJ – Passion, perceptions and procedures dominated as three attorneys clashed over the fate of the 19th-century Doris Duke mansion yesterday.

Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone concluded the one-hour hearing by announcing she would issue a final ruling by the end of next week.

Attorney David Brook, who represents the grass roots preservationist group DORIS – Demolition of Mansion is Senseless - made an impassioned presentation, hoping to stave off demolition of the 67,000 square-foot mansion in Hillsborough where the heiress and socialite lived until she died in 1993.

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Members of DORIS and Duke Farms executives, including Michael Catania, executive director, were present for the hearing.

The Hillsborough Township Historic Commission voted 6-1 to issue a demolition permit sought by the Duke Farms Foundation at its meeting in October, 2015 following several public hearings dominated by questions and challenges from members of DORIS.

The Dukes Farm Foundation contends additions and alterations made to the original house by the heiress after inheriting the property in 1932 negates its value and significance as a historic structure. Furnishings, paintings, sculpture, chandeliers, jewelry, an extensive wine collection and other contents were removed from the residence and sold in New York City at a lavish four-day auction by Christie’s in June, 2004. Proceeds went to the Duke Charitable Trust.

Indoor fountains, fireplace mantels and other fixtures have also been removed.

Jeffrey LaRosa, attorney for the Duke Farms Foundation, said that sections of the floor no longer exist and that many doors are also gone.

He estimates it would take between $10-20 million to restore the expansive building, money that the foundation wants to spend elsewhere on the property.

The Duke Farms Foundation maintains the heiress and socialite, who was also an avid horticulturist intended the 2,700 expanse surrounding the mansion be maintained as an ecological preserve and environmental learning center.

Brook pointed out that Duke in 1987 had prepared an application seeking to have the mansion considered for placement on the National Historic Places registry.

Hillsborough designated the mansion as a historic site in 2001.

Brook pressed his contention that testimony provided to the Historic Commission during its public hearings by expert witness Emily Copperman was “tainted and questionable,” absent of any third-party input.

He also said the expert provided “selective information” and “did not conduct due diligence,” suggesting that she should have consulted with people “who know more than you do.

“We think the commission missed the boat,” Brook said.

William J. Willard, attorney for the township, and LaRosa countered Brook’s arguments; Willard suggested Brook stumbled over procedures and engaged in personal attacks on township officials, legal counsel and expert witnesses over the past several months as he filed several motions and addendums on behalf of DORIS.

“His mistakes became my mistakes,” a perturbed Willard said.

“I object to this excess baggage Mr. Brook is throwing at the court,” LaRosa added.

The attorney for the foundation also reminded Brook that the mansion is private property but that the foundation is being true to Duke’s wishes that the grounds be accessible to the public.

“They’ve allowed millions of people to visit; they want to,” he said.

LaRosa also dismissed suggestions that the mansion could have been converted into bed & breakfast lodging, or adapted as a satellite college facility; the foundation does not want any commercial use within the property, LaRosa said.

He also said that the foundation has or is working on restoration of 25 of the structures on the property at considerable cost.

Ciccone yesterday denied Brook’s latest effort to amend the record when he asked the court to consider a letter he received Feb. 19 from National Park Service Landmarks Manager Bill Bolger, who had reservations with testimony provided to the Historic Commission by Copperman.

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

In his Feb. 12 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.’ "

Brook insisted that Bolger’s criticism of Copperman’s conclusions meant the Historic Commission was not properly apprised of the property’s historic significance while admitting that Bolger, who had attended a Sept. 24 hearing held by the Historic Commission, did not offer at that time to testify on behalf of DORIS.

Willard challenged Brook and questioned why Bolger failed to step up at that time and why he waited another 4-5 months before submitting the letter.

Brook said Bolger had traveled to the Sept. 24 hearing to offer his expertise, but was not given ample time to make a presentation.

“Bolger didn’t want to testify in their behalf,” Willard said. “He never came up to the podium. On Sept. 24, Brook had the floor to present any witness he wanted. The floor was his to do what he wished.”

Brook maintains the actions of the township Historical Commission, which issued the demolition permit to the Duke Farms Foundation in October, were “arbitrary and capricious.’’

The attorneys representing the township and the foundation argued that members of the Historic Commission were careful to follow procedures.

“The process wasn’t flawed,” Willard said. “Everyone was treated equally. The decision amply supported the record,” he added.

“We are hard pressed to say there wasn’t due consideration,” LaRosa said, noting that Duke Farms had met all seven criteria required by township ordinance to proceed with the demolition.

The Foundation had agreed earlier this year to delay the demolition pending Ciccone’s decision.  

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