Status: On-going Concern
The Trumbauer/Abele Greenhouse complex at Duke Farms, Hillsborough, NJ, (also known as 1909 and 1917 greenhouses) is significant in the history of architecture, horticulture, landscape design, and cultural legacy associated with Duke Farms. In 1909, tobacco and energy magnate James Buchanan Duke commissioned Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer to design a range of greenhouses at his Duke Farms estate. Trumbauer’s chief designer was Julian Abele, the first African-American architecture student to attend and graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, and the Duke greenhouse complex is believed to be Abele’s design. The greenhouses were built in 1909-1910, with an addition in 1917. The main central conservatory has lateral wings, and subsidiary greenhouses behind the wings form the periphery of a square with gardeners’ potting and propagation area enclosed as a courtyard. It was ordered from Lord & Burnham of Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, and it is a massive, yet delicate greenhouse with Corinthian columns at each corner of the main conservatory. The pediment is filled with wrought-iron work and interwoven with “DD” for Doris Duke (daughter of James B. Duke), which was a later addition but complements the original structure. The greenhouses were renovated in 1958 for their new purpose as display gardens and were opened to the public in 1964.
Doris Duke died in 1993, and today the estate is owned by the Duke Farms Foundation, which is part of the larger Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The property underwent major renovations and re-opened to the public in 2012 with a focus on environmental sustainability and education. In 2016, the Duke Farms Foundation made the controversial decision to demolish the Duke estate mansion. DORIS, a grassroots group that formed to fight the demolition of the mansion, and other local groups are now concerned about the future of the Trumbauer/Abele Greenhouse Complex. The Duke Farms Foundation and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, who own the greenhouse complex, have not taken a public position on the greenhouse, but their lack of maintenance may indicate an approach of demolition by neglect, which is what occurred with the mansion. The greenhouse complex has been closed to the public since 2008, and exhibits deteriorated conditions including wood rot, broken panes of glass, and separation at the roofline at the pediment. The extent of deterioration is difficult to discern due to limited exterior access and no interior access by the public. Unlike many of the other structures at Duke Farms, the greenhouses lack descriptive and interpretive signage, and the visitor map includes a footprint of the complex but no label. The concern is the Foundations will allow the greenhouses to deteriorate to such a degree that they then argue the complex is beyond repair. DORIS is coordinating an educational campaign with three local NAACP chapters to bring awareness of the significance of the greenhouses and their association with Julian Abele. Something must be done before another key feature from the Duke estate is lost.
PNJ is pleased to share additional information from Duke Farms supporting the preservation and continued use of the Trumbauer/Abele Greenhouse Complex. Duke Farms Executive Director, Michael Catania, explained that while the greenhouses are not open to the general public, “many of these greenhouse have remained in active use – to grow native plants for our extensive on-site ecological restorations, to start seeds for our Sustainable Farming Enterprise Program and for our extensive community garden program, and for storage for equipment and vehicles”. In addition, the Foundation has plans to “to reuse the complex for a wide variety of programmatic purposes, especially the 1917 Conservatory and adjacent greenhouses, which we plan on utilizing for a welcome center and program area for the many large school groups which visit Duke Farms every year”.
With regard to plans for the adaptive reuse of the structures, Mr. Catania said, “While we do not have any specific blueprints or floor plans to share just yet, the fact of the matter is that the complex is in fairly good shape for its age, and we hope to wrap up our internal planning and proceed with some renovations of the conservatory within the next year or two. We believe that our proposed adaptive reuse of the greenhouse complex, which has already begun, is much more consistent with our new mission to be a model of environmental stewardship”.