When we say that not all hope is lost, it isn’t out of chronic optimism. There are cases of historic houses and structures being scrupulously salvaged and freshened up in far worse conditions than what is illustrated through the Duke Estate. In fact, there are pieces of the past that, although they go without any substantial camaraderie, have been included in today’s management of this magnificent property. Additionally, there are abundant opportunities for the current trustees and executives to capitalize on their historic significance with. In a burst of positivity, we at the RRBlog have decided to shed light on what’s still lingering like a ghost of decades bygone and what chances at preservation have not yet passed us by.
Let’s start our journey with one of the oldest structures on the property, whose identity was recently rediscovered to the public with the opening of the mansion’s acres: The Boathouse. While there has been some dialogue about having this structure house public restrooms, there’s much to do with this project piece. From a generalist perspective, this boathouse is perhaps the most at-risk for flooding and likely has years of prior damages from mold and stormy seasons following 1993. Due to it having the lowest elevation of any building on the property in conjunction with its being in closest proximity to the Raritan River on the northern border, this structure can probably pass for next year’s Top 10 Most Endangered at this rate! Preservation NJ already is observing the treatment that Duke Farm’s executives handle the Trumbauer-Abele Greenhouse since 2017’s nomination was finalized. The boathouse, much like anything else on the estate, boasts a unique design that features the thematic motif of the landscape, the boulder style foundation, with some Victorian roof ornaments and wood siding. There is an excellent view of two sets of east-facing double doors to Boathouse Lake from the vantage point above. I’m not sure public restrooms would serve this building true justice. Perhaps there’s more merit in using Boathouse Lake (currently scented of rancid, rotting fish or the like) to teach outdoorsy folk about sustainable and environmentally-responsible water activities, like how to kayak with the welfare of the environment in mind.
Another stop on our tour of hopefuls is the Visitor’s Lodge. For those of you who fondly remember the Greenhouses on display (1961-2008), you probably also remember a low-slung Dutch-esque building with a magnificent stone fireplace inside. This building, perching the western edge of the greenhouses’ esplanade, was the check-in point for all incoming tourists to the gardens. The Visitor’s Lodge housed a variety of seasonal goodies, office spaces, archival materials, and even a residence at one point. Today it stands frequently empty with the exception of the visitor with a full bladder or a rare conference for the executives. In our most recent travel to the property, this building was under extravagant interior remodeling. What was once a room full to the brim with files and shelving, desks and paperwork is now covered generously in plastic tarp and a scaffold. We can only hope that this becomes a restorative initiative that welcomes the public to enjoy the warmth of a hearth and seating in a room intended for guests year-round. This particular development is interesting because it makes us at the RRBlog curious about what this spells out for the near future of the greenhouses since these two structures back in Duke days worked together for guests to embrace the area.
With the observant eye of a former employee, we did get a chance to highlight what elements of the property are, in fact, being reused. Perhaps most obvious to him was the thatched siding of the Orchid Range, which turned out to be none other than the same siding used in the Colonial American Garden display from the larger structure. Additional materials removed from the larger Trumbauer-Abele structure included benches from the Italian garden, a mirror from the Chinese garden, two magnificent statues from the Italian garden (now incorporated into the Hay Barn exposed to the raw elements and again in the orchid display), and even structural landscape elements were identified as being original to the greenhouses! Despite the high merits of reusing and recycling these priceless pieces, there remains little to no information or publicity generated from the Farms about these practices.