Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stately Mansions

I’m not part of the wealthy class, the 1%, despite living in one of the richest counties in the U.S.

Luckily, when I want to leave my middle-class existence for a while, I can find a way to pretend.

There was a time when, like Fifth Ave. in Manhattan, roads in Morris County were lined with mansions. The area was considered country, where the titans of industry could flee the city with their families in summer for cooler, fresher air.

However, as with the most of the Fifth Ave. mansions south of East 60th Street, most of those in Morris County were converted to office buildings or torn down for something else. (For pictures of Morris mansions, some long gone, some still standing as private residences, click here.)

Many Morris mansions only live on as street names. The ones I know are Mayfair and Idlewild in Morris Plains. Danforth and James in Madison. Kahn Drive, the road that led to financier Otto Kahn’s “country” mansion in Morristown. (His NY town mansion is still standing, at 1 East 91st and is a Catholic school.)

Then there’s the Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge estate in Madison, Giralda Farms, where the mansion came down and the grounds were converted into an office park (with a sidewalk around the campus for walking - outside the fenced grounds, of course). Florence Vanderbuilt and Hamilton Twombley’s nearby Florham is now a campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. The mansion is the administration building.

But some of the biggest estates were donated to public or private entities and became parks, for the enjoyment of all, and that‘s where I go.

The various members of the Freylingheusen family held wide swaths of land in Morris County. The mansion of Peter Freylingheusen is now the Morris Museum. Another one, George Freylingheusen and his wife Sara, an heir to the Ballantine Brewery (Newark's own) fortune, donated Whippany Farms, their summer home, to Morris County (and adjacent land to the Morristown-Beard school). It became the Freylingheusen Arboretum and the mansion is the headquarters of the Morris County Parks Commission.

This park  is one of my favorite places to walk, my go-to spot when I have to let off steam immediately.

Whippany Farms, from the back
I have been there at all times of the year - with boots and stick in 7 inches (or more) of snow, in spring when the many different birds pass through, summer with its resident nesters (including Baltimore and orchard orioles) and fall when the colors come. The garden plants around the parking lot are labeled and many garden courses and one big garden sale (always the first Saturday in May) are held there. You could drop me anyplace there and I’d find my way back.

Morris County isn’t alone, of course. Somerset County is lousy with estates, too. One that became a park is Natirar, whose last owner was the King of Morocco. It straddles the borders of Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills and Bedminister.

After the king died his son, for some reason, wanted out of New Jersey. The estate was bought by a group that includes Richard Branson of Virgin Media. They donated the land down the hill from the mansion to the Somerset County park system. The mansion, which makes Whippany Farms look like a toolshed, is now an exclusive restaurant/spa.

(UPDATE: I have since learned that the land was NOT donated, it was bought by Somerset County for $22 million and the mansion leased to Branson and his group for 99 years. So much for charity.)

That’s fitting for this wealthy area, and the late King of Morocco would feel right at home, I’m sure.

I don’t find most of the park very interesting to look at, although if you want to just walk or bike or jog in a very large loop it will do you fine. The main path is wide open, with very little shade except for the area along the north branch of the Raritan River (Natirar is Raritan backwards). There is a second path, up a different hill, I’ve yet to try.

More interesting to me is Duke Farms. Like the Freylingheusen arboretum, this property is now set up to be a sort of teaching landscape with various habitats. But unlike the Freylingheusen Arboretum, everything is on a much larger and grander scale, as the Dukes were (Duke tobacco, Duke Energy) compared with the Freylingheusens (a colonial family, one of whose descendants is my congressman).

Duke Farms is so environmentally correct it’s almost scary. The paths are wide and walkable. Bicycling is encouraged. You can only park in one area across the road from the main park (a crossing guard stops traffic for you). Only one tram runs from the education center (the former stable) to three points in the park, every 30 minutes. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

After being there twice, I still feel I haven’t seen everything.

Duke mansion
But there is one path I took the second time where I could see the Duke mansion through the trees. This is where the reclusive Doris, only child of James Buchanan Duke, lived when she was in NJ., one of her four mansions. The mansion is still kept up but it is gated off.

That makes it rather sad. I doubt Doris as a child was allowed to explore the grounds. When JB was in town he was driven (first by horse, then by auto) to other parts of the farm to supervise whatever work had to be done. I can’t see him walking around for the hell of it either.

So much estate for one small family, just sitting there and not being enjoyed. It was a protective buffer for the Dukes, set up to be a self-sustaining farm and shut off from the world. I’m glad when Doris died the Duke Foundation decided to open up the land as an environmentally correct, self-sustaining park (growing its own seedlings, for instance) for the enjoyment of all.

But when I saw that mansion hiding in the distance and thought of the lonely woman who lived (at least part of the time) within, I’m reminded the rich are different, and not necessarily in a good way.

No comments:

Post a Comment