Posted in Operation ORCHID

The Trails Traveled at Dukes

In this written review of Duke’s Estate, we were able to reconvene after much ado thanks to the global pandemic from covid-19, coronavirus. Our spurt with wandering across the property was a refreshing shift back into our regularly scheduled passion for history and preservation. The challenges of covid-19 cannot be understated, but the recent ability for new jerseyans to return to somewhat normal levels of function was exactly what the doctor ordered for us. As usual, the overall estate brought us several pleasant surprises and a few notions that suggest they still have a long way to go toward recovering from their poor decision to demolish Duke’s mansion. This is not to be confused with resignation because there are some telltale signs across the property that give us great hope. We noticed a few exceptional changes on the property- such as nearly algae-free lakes and streams (major difference from previous years), repairs in mortar along the iconic stone wall, a few broken streetlamps at the conservatory’s front esplanade, the still-missing DD insignia affixed above it’s doors, removal of fencing around the statue of Athena, and a recently cleared half acre or so facing south from the bridge at great falls that facilitates a view of the lake and fox hollow trail below. There’s so much changing in the world, so it is our hope that things change to support a fuller illustration for the multifaceted legacy that the Dukes left behind. We see it being made more and more possible here, and we will continue to offer what insights we can in these history-making times.

Some great strides and some little reparations yet to be made makes for a mixed review of the property from us at RRBlog. It continues to be one of our favorite places to kick back, picnic, and find peace at the intersection of past, present, and future. Perhaps the most incredible change however comes in the form of a person. This new face has finally fixed the vacancy in the executive directors position as of yesterday. we are so hopeful to have a new team member spearheading the efforts at Duke farms to honor the legacy or Doris in a way that shows her love and dedication for all things of the organic world- both flora and fauna- that meshes gracefully with her homage to her roots, and to her father’s extraordinary attention to detail in tending their opulent acres.

We look forward to observing the progress that this extraordinarily historic, unique, and highly potent model for stewardship and preservation makes as it enters a new era of management. Congratulations to the staff for their selection of a new director!

Posted in Operation ORCHID

Operation Orchid: Crossing Paths (NOT)

Check this out! Click Here: Duke Farms Greenway Opens

This was a cited reason for why the infamous Duke Mansion just had to be demolished. Sounds pretty legit, right? If the house isn’t in the way (which sadly, it’s gone now), the Duke Farms administration can make a lovely trail that connects Raritan’s stunning Nevius Street Bridge to the trails at Duke Farms for continuity and improved pedestrian flow. They did just that, and the trail is very easy to navigate. In addition, trails flanking the northern border of the estate (the wetlands) have been opened to foot traffic since the demolition.

There’s a tragic flaw in that logic, however. The greenway path does not intersect with the mansion’s footprint. In fact, the two aren’t anywhere near each other in the 52 acres of ‘Arboretum’ that demo’ing the mansion opened up.

Don’t believe the ‘opposition’? Let’s see what the actual distances look like in the spring when we are thawed out.

On the subject of pathways, there was a lovely gate whose pillars were restored by the remarkable team of historic architects at DKA (omitted for privacy unless otherwise stated), at the southern side of Dukes Parkway West. Now that gate is replaced with sad-looking wooden posts and a thick rope. Something tells me that wasn’t too original, tasteful, or publicly recognized for changing. Where’d it go? We would love to know.


Stay dangerously curious, darlings~

Posted in Operation ORCHID, The Publications

Operation Orchid: Credit & Condolences

We at RRBlog and our incredible allies in Operation ORCHID want to take a moment to express that we aren’t a hostile group. In the past, we have been called names such as muckrakers, the opposition, instigators, aggressors, and even ‘precocious, misappropriated broads’. That last one is Harpie’s favorite. Despite the curious rumors and false accusations, we are always prepared to give credit where it is due, even if we don’t like the view of a person or group receiving credit.

Today actually yielded a pleasant surprise. After a two-mile stretch on bicycles, we decided to take an overdue wander on the northern end of the Duke’s Estate property which is known best as the site where the mansion stood. The ‘arboretum’ is its formal name, although for some reason the foundation never held any official opening to the area. Its as if they didn’t have an overwhelming sense of pride- rather they carried a guilt or shame associated with the demolition and subsequent display of the now-emptied landscape. It was always evident something was missing… until another someone was lost.

The final manager of logistics at Duke’s Estate was known affectionately as Cupie. Her role in the Duke Legacy can’t be understated. Since her arrival to America as an immigrant, Doris and she had a bond. Cupie was originally hired as a head-of-residence and maintained Miss Duke’s affairs. Her entire family was known to have involvement in the caretaking of the estate and its many facets, but Cupie was priceless. For many years, Cupie’s family lived in-residence on the former Duke Mansion before it was destroyed. Her contributions as a professional liaison to Miss Duke are catalogued as part of the Oral Histories Project at Duke University and it appears as though her work was acknowledged by the foundation as well. In honor of her passing, we discovered a beautiful plaque and memorial overlooking Heron Lake in what would be the backyard of Miss Duke’s home.

Duke Farms, Operation Orchid and RRBlog respectfully say thank you, sincerely, for taking a moment to honor and recognize the value of Miss Duke’s hand-selected staff. We feel that the memorial is well-deserved and a step in the right direction to fully represent the Duke way of being. Our condolences are with Cupie’s family. You have more friends and support than you know.

In addition to this profound statement, it appears as though the good will and TLC didn’t stop there. (Author’s note: bikeriding makes the entire estate far more accessible. We heartily recommend- safely- trekking up the Old Foundation hill just for the sake of zooming down the steeper side by the Kiva doors.) Pausing for tea breaks is essential; and we stopped on the south-facing clearing by the foundation that faces Vista Lake. It warmed my heart to be able to see straight across Vista Lake, which was clean of algae (mostly) without the overgrowth permeating the view.

It’s not a perfect situation by far, and nothing excuses the atrocities committed by the DDCF and DFF against the historical integrity of the state of New Jersey and Somerset County, however….

We are thankful that it appears that… in small steps…. the values of family, community, and meaningful, multi-track legacy are creeping back into the protocol fabric of Duke’s Estate.

We are eager to see how everyone is able to identify, develop, and act on new ideas that truly reflect Miss Duke’s methods from home.

Cheers, Darlings.

Posted in Operation ORCHID

ORCHID Goes on Tour!

It has been a turbulent few months of silence at RRBlog, but we thank you for your patience throughout. In the last two weeks, The Duchess of South Somerville received a well-deserved makeover with a tag-team of volunteer editors and was re-released on May 5th, just this last weekend.

We are elated to announce that an entire box of merchandise was sold, connections were made to valuable other groups like Preservation NJ, NJ Historic Trust, and of course, we look forward to the final decisions for a future panel discussion at The 2019 NJ History Conference at Douglass College.

What a hoot it has been, darlings. So far, we have been graciously hosted by Morris Museum, The Van Veghten House, and Mendham Boro’s Hstorical Society.

Stay involved, use your voice, and speak up on behalf of your local history!


Posted in Operation ORCHID

On the Passing of Marion ‘Oatsie’ Charles

Anyone who knows much about Newport, Rhode Island society knows the name Marion Oatsie Charles. Raised in Southern wealth and poised in the art of vivacious advocacy, Oatsie was a close colleague and friend of our late neighbor, Doris Duke. The notification of her passing reached us as it was published, and we at ORCHID wanted to spread thoughts and prayers as well as solidarity to a woman known in her legacy for historic preservation- a legacy that far surpassed her Newport social life.

It will prove to be an exceptional inspiration to visitors of the Newport Restoration Society to have the name Marion Oatsie Charles immortalized in their work. Of course, as Rough Point is one of three locations designated under the umbrella of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, we at the RRBlog find it increasingly interesting to see how the DDCF will honor such a powerful ally’s legacy in their own ways.

Our hearts go out to Oatsie’s family and friends, as well as the entirety of Newport for this profound loss, especially so close to the holidays.

Additionally, we look forward to seeing how the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation operates under its new status as a nonprofit in the year 2019. We expect nothing short of honorably walking in the footsteps of the Dukes and their amazing allies like the magnificent and poised Marion Oatsie Charles.

Posted in Operation ORCHID

Op. Orchid: Where There’s Hope…


Recently the team at RRBlog had the luxury of a calm weekend afternoon to ourselves. In an ever-busy world, its a beautiful commodity to get to slow down and enjoy the scenery at a place like Duke’s Estate. Of course, even on the loveliest of days with the most charming picnic box lunches, it is impossible to shut our eyes to progress or demise of any sort. You see, we’ve got a rich history on the land of historic riches.

So what exactly caught our eyes this time around? Admittedly, it’s been a while since we’ve had this opportunity for a self-guided tour. We didn’t cover everything, but it was enough to shake a stick at. First thing we noticed as we got into the park was a small cart carrying individuals to the Orchid Range who otherwise would struggle with that distance. In the absence of a tram, this was a relief to see. Next, we made our way to the orchid range, where we met a frog in the doorway. Most impressively, there were decorations for the harvest season flanking both sets of doors and a boisterously successful growing arch. We didn’t have time to tour the entire facility again, but the explicit use of space and attention to detail was a welcome contrast to years prior.

Next up was the Old Foundation after a nice cardio walk uphill. That remains essentially unchanged, except for the excess of trees and other debris blatantly left to overgrow the structure. Surely the roots alone are causing irreparable damages to the shapes of concrete rooms below. I also remember years ago that visitors would have no problem seeing the fireplace on the northernmost wall of the foundation, or the two stories beneath the ground. Now, it’s nowhere near the same caliber of visibility.

Ahead, we veered off the path to wander west across the bridge at the Great Falls. The very same balustrade post from years ago still stands cracked and badly in need of repairs, but we remain hopeful. We had to pause for lunch by the Great Oak Tree. It was just getting sunnier out and we had the distinct pleasure of befriending yet another, much larger frog in our trek back to the Coach Barn. This is where the real amazement started to settle in. Just as the two of us emerged to greet the Bull Durham statue, my eyes instantly darted to the gates to the mansion’s footprint. Gone were the sprays of ivy, cracks, and unblended patch-up jobs of the last year. Restored, clean, and painted a clean coat of ivory, the gates that once welcomed Doris Duke home and all her guests to their destination stood tall and proud. Naturally, we were inclined to take a closer look, because this was a splendid step in the right direction. And we were blown away with the steps toward a true vision that awaited us.

Yep. You heard right. Things within the realm of historic integrity are actually looking up. We aren’t about to overlook the catastrophic losses of the Duke Mansion (2016) or the Garden of Nations (2008), but we are here to serve as a source of encouragement and support for future endeavors to improve on what is left.

The mortar of walls along the borders of the Coach Barn and pillars that lead to the new pedestrian-accessible Coach Barn Gate, which offers a unique new trail for visitors to use. This was once a turn-of-the-century motorway for the Dukes and their company to drive along the banks of the Raritan and now gives an expansive look of wetlands and views of the same lovely river. As if this wasn’t enough of a re-ignition of hope and positivity, we decided to venture into the ‘arboretum’, which actually held up its name with some hints still lingering of a summer’s blooms.

The meditation garden was remade so effectively that we at the RRBlog want to give our compliments to the landscape team for this area. The tea house, babbling brooks, paths, and diverse array of non-native plant species all support the magnificent display. Icing on the cake? We got it. Despite the dramatic absence of a one-of-a-kind mansion, there is maintenance of the landscape of its footprint and the flanking palm room fountains.

Feel like another round? From the sound of Twitter, the Education Cottage is the revival of the Visitor’s Lodge that leads guests to the grassy esplanade of the greenhouses. We revel in what comes next in this pattern in pursuit of preservation. Until next time, we carry on the inspirations through Operation Orchid.


Posted in Operation ORCHID

Operation Orchid: A Tale of Two Townships

Irony is a manifestation of fate tangled within itself. Are things always coincidental, or is everything fueled by an antecedent and the prospect of a consequence? It’s a psychologically rooted question; one that we find ourselves stuck with often these days when observing the stark contrast of behaviors between historic preservation in the locality of the Duke Estate and its counterparts. Okay, let’s cut the abstract and get nitty gritty.

So on July 16th, all the information has to be submitted to Somerset County by the public regarding the preservation of historic parcels and eras of interest. This gives the members of this county FOUR DAYS from now to have this info submitted.

What’s ironic here is that there is a specific category for the emerging of ‘Great Estates’ like Dukes and Natirar, (1880-1911) which seeks general input. This county was the same one that, in preventative measures in 2015, turned a blind eye to the desperation of the DORIS group in trying to preserve the integrity of the Duke Estate through saving the mansion. In addition, this is the same county whose court rejected the measures taken to appeal the demolition permit granted by Hillsborough Township. But I mean hey, the judge that presided the case is a sibling of someone who works directly for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation so obviously dialogues off the record played a huge role in getting us to this point right?

Now that the estate is missing the house that literally defines the title ‘estate’ at Duke Farms, it seems like Somerset County is either getting wise or getting profoundly remorseful. But hindsight is always 20/20. You can’t bring back what you destroyed. This is how we whitewash history and skew the stories of the past. The timeline is perpetually damaged unless some serious preservation efforts and commemorative methods are prepared ASAP.


Mount Laurel is getting it together!

Unlike the case of the Duke Mansion, Mount Laurel identifies with the same costly concerns, but collected the support of PNJ (Preservation New Jersey) who was able to acquire a temporary halt to the demolition in advance of it beginning- with the stipulation that the township would review and submit a plan for the space. The clock is ticking, no doubt, but the fight is always on against these staples of American culture- which if no one noticed- is lacking serious emphasis. The gentrification between technology and culture is staggering, one that deserves the attention first through using what you’ve already got- including old houses that requiresome degree of remediation.

Ah, life’s little ironies indeed. The story continues for ORCHID and the real legacy of Doris Duke. Get it together, New Jersey!

Do you have input? SEND IT IN:

Posted in Operation ORCHID, The Trials of Doris

Op Orchid: Reflections on Doris

Apparently three years later we still must be reminded that the actions of the Hillsborough Township Historic Preservation Commission were ‘justified’ on the night of the vote to demolish Duke Mansion. I woke up to such a post today and wished I could just fall aslseep and start over. Of course, the internet captures the best and worst of people, and no amount of sleep can change that.

So let’s jitterbug into this junk. Retro revivalism, just as a recap, is centralized onto the idea that what is old can be integrated into what is new- and here lies Duke Estate in Hillsborough NJ, whose historic signfiicance (though debated) is a prime (and continuously missed) opportunity to create new ideas upon while honoring those roots. With the post occuring nearly three years later, this raises serious eyebrows regardless of what our readers’ positions are on the matter. Here is the quote as it appeared, as sharp as a razor. We have respectfully omitted the name of the post writer.

“Life’s little ironies”, indeed. This house has been sold. The new owner has handed over the restoration to an architect and a general contractor who have each won awards for their work restoring and preserving historic buildings. They have said that they NEVER see a brick house from this time period (1803) in such beautiful condition. I am predicting this restoration will win a preservation award from Somerset County when it is complete.

By the way, if you read to the end of the article please make note, Doris Duke had several mansions, not one, two of which she specifically wished to be preserved – Newport and Hawaii.”

First of all, credit is given where credit is due; honesty is a cornerstone of our retro life. Yes, Miss Duke did have several mansions. Specification to ‘preserve’ is too ambitious of a claim for this person to make because the will of Miss Duke was arbitrary according to testimony, which is most likely due to modifications made when Doris was incapacitated and left her care to her seedy butler. This too, was dismissed many years ago. The problem we have here is that Duke only had one estateThere were two other structures that she maintained in her will (Hawaii and Newport), but only one location was all-encompassing. While Shangri La of Honolulu and Rough Point of Newport both boast architectural significance and historic designation as individual residence structures, Duke Farms of Hillsborough boasts dozens of significant, contributing structures that created New Jersey’s last intact estate.

To compare the estate, (which was residence to two significant figures, hosted guests of significance routinely, and offered a fascinating model for estate life that included private residences, staffing, public programs and access, as well as commerce), to a single-family residence from almost 80 years prior in its time of construction is liek comparing the talent of a singer to the talent of a needlepointer. They are similar, but their compositions are simply different.

Seeking validation in this manner is not exactly what we would expect, particularly if something wasn’t weighing heavily on someone’s mind. Especially after so much time has passed, it becomes a curiosity that these committeemen still attach to the topic. The good news is that it remains clear that the actions that were made clearly won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Maybe someday the Duke Estate will find its way to its former glory. Until then, the memories of its demise still taste like vinegar to us all.

Posted in Operation ORCHID

Op. Orchid: Using What You’ve Got

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.

Posted in Operation ORCHID, The Publications, The Trials of Doris

Op. Orchid: Bringing Down The House

Upon walking through the towering gates, the newly opened site formerly containing Doris Duke’s home, the winding path let to the remnants of Ms. Duke’s home, some stone steps and what could be summarized as an otherwise mostly vacant field. Walking up the path revealed some stone fixtures; the leftover parcels of the structure of the Duke Mansion in Hillsborough NJ. Even with snow decorating them they reflected a grace, age, and majesty that these stone fixtures had led to before the adamant efforts of the Duke Farms Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to demolish the beloved home of their founder. These organizations were claiming a decade of research into alternative uses for the home was made, bringing no documentation or proof of these efforts, only providing a powerpoint made by someone hired by the foundation, to trials determining the house’s fate.

Walking up the stairs I couldn’t help but tell my wonderful companion that maybe we should try to knock where the doors would have been, just in case. You could likely guess that there was no invisible Duke Mansion there, but there is an entire field with some circular fountain beds with freshly painted birds in the middle of the fountains, while looking new not in any way matching the patina of the rest of the property.  In the case of the Garden of Nations remainder, there’s too much patina, wood rot, and gaps in the outer integrity of the structure. Oh the irony.

I could be quoted saying “You know what would be really nice here? A HOUSE!”. Walking around the grounds previously occupied by the home of Doris Duke, there was a somber feeling in my chest as if the nearly vacant space was reflective of the hole I felt in my chest. It feels as if I’m visiting the grave of someone whom I had been trying to save, but couldn’t be saved because of the slow train coming that had no intention of stopping with this person in the way of the tracks they have laid. On a gentle slope going away from the plain at the center of the location, there is a bit of a grotto, a pleasant small body of water that I could imagine was a peaceful and serene spot for Ms. Duke when her home was on the grounds of her estate.

Most upsetting for me is the gall of all parties involved in the previous and concurrent attempts at assassination of the Duke family history and the legacy of Doris Duke. A plaque on the site of Doris Duke’s home reads (in reference to this site) “Doris Duke’s seasonal residence”, an improvement to DFF’s use of the phrase “Former main residence” (when referring to the two story hole in the ground as the main residence). Upon this plaque are images of other homes that Duke would visit when she wasn’t in her home and main residence in Hillsborough NJ (the one that’s not a large hole in the ground). Below these images are the words to the effect of; Doris Duke left specific instructions for her other properties, Shangra La, and Rough Point. This is the boldest of the falsehoods shared by DFF in their failure to honor their founder’s mission and purpose for founding the DFF and DDCF. According to Christie’s Auction, “it was Duke Farms she truly considered ‘home’ “.

It is important to note that during proceedings in attempts to preserve the Duke mansion the DFF had the copy of the will of Doris Duke submitted into evidence struck from the record. In the will, that they fail to correctly reference on the plaque commemorating the demolished home of their founder, it states that she expects her organizations to maintain and preserve all of her properties, stating the term “preservation” and other words to that effect several times while there is a single demolition clause much later in the will which is not quite specific either, clearly Duke had hoped her foundations would honor her legacy.