Heading north on Route 206 in New Jersey, it is a mixed bag of visual interest. In many ways the road seems older than it is in actuality: somehow it feels quite elderly, say in American Revolutionary War age terms. But the road in its entirety is not that old (designated as Route 206 in the 1930s), although fragments of it – it is a stitched together assemblage of other roads – might be, especially around Trenton and Princeton. Overall, Route 206 slashes through New Jersey in a north-south line that almost divides the state laterally. Many sections are rural; probably for not much longer.
Route 206’s 130-some miles connect Hammonton, below the Pine Barrens, and Milford, Pa., just shy of the Delaware Water Gap. I find it significant that these two landmark areas, which are fiercely protected, tend to bookend something equally remarkable – something that is possibly equidistant from both termini.
We have travelled Route 206 fairly often, and passing through Princeton is a treat; it is so coiffed and cared for and historically fashionable. The road snakes through the town and campus, then makes its way into recently-developed, once-rural parts. Then, the two-lane highway opens up like a boa constrictor swallowing a large mammal and becomes like every other multilane highway ever conceived.
But, wait, we wondered, the first time it caught our eye – what is that exquisite wall bordering the road, that anachronism of perfectly set umber river stones that seems to enclose something? What it surrounds must be something huge, because the masterfully aligned stone wall continues for miles. There are a few breaks in the wall – intentional ones with wrought-iron gates and turrets built of the same stones. What was/is that?
The next time we passed it, going in the opposite direction, I caught a glimpse of a sign – Duke Farms. Hmm. My brain started reeling; we passed a crossroad – Duke Parkway. Duke. Being a PBS watcher, I pondered the only Duke name I know – Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wondered.
First chance, we looked up the name. My arrow was true: It is the Duke estate, built by Doris’ father, J. B. Duke – tobacco tycoon (American Tobacco Company), early discoverer of hydroelectric (Duke Power Company) and generous benefactor to Trinity College (renamed Duke University). Doris‘ father died young, and Doris transferred her devotion to the homestead with a mostly unbuilt mansion on Route 206 – Duke Farms. Construction on the house stopped after the two-story foundation was laid, and now it is a beautiful ruin.
Doris also loved nature and she rebuilt the lavish estate as an environmental model of stewardship; her mission was to protect land, threatened species, habitats and to continue the legacy of the home she loved in a more generous way. Duke Farms is so full of placeness on every level (although it requires turning a blind eye to the tobacco roots – but, hey, America’s beauty is often built on the embarrassing underbelly of robber barons’ give-back).
We finally stopped to check it out. Amazing, is all I can say. Take a bazillion dollars and do something meaningful with it: arslocii. Thousands of acres of privately protected land in the midst of over-development. Go to the orientation center in the magnificent Farm Barn. I thought for sure that it was the main house, but no – this was the barn! A 22,000 square foot former horse and dairy barn, it has been greened to the max (LEED platinum) and the cafe even has vegan/vegetarian offerings. It is a kind of cathedral to environmental PC-ness. You can walk trails for 18 miles, you can ride bikes on 12 of them, there is a now-green greenhouse that looks suspiciously like the Palm House, in Kew Gardens.
If you want to see how significant this walled paradise is, look at the photograph in front of the Farm Barn that is mounted on a stand. It is an aerial view of Duke Farms with its surrounds: wall-to-wall dense housing that, at first glance, looks like cotton fields beyond the open space. Compare and contrast. Beauty and the beast.
What is also mind-boggling is that Duke Farms has been open to the public for only one year. It is, in many ways, a surprising treasure of placeness in the sometimes placeless sprawl of New Jersey lurking outside its lovely wall.