An Afternoon in the Millionaire's Park

The rich are different, and sometimes they donate their lands for us to enjoy as parks.

I’m not part of the wealthy class, the 1 percent, 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, this volume is fascinating.)

Many Morris mansions only live on as street names. The ones I know are Mayfair and Idlewild in Morris Plains and Danforth and James in Madison. There's also Kahn Drive, the road that led to financier Otto Kahn’s “country” mansion in Morristown. (His N.Y. 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 Vanderbilt's 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 family member, 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. The property is now the Freylingheusen Arboretum and the Morristown mansion is the headquarters of the Morris County Parks Commission.

The park is one of my favorite places to walk.

I have been there at all times of the year—with boots and walking 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, there are  many gardening and environmental programs and one big garden sale (always the first Saturday in May). You could drop me anyplace there and I’d find my way back to my car.

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.

That’s fitting for this area and the late King of Morocco or his son 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 that runs 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 in Hillsborough. Like the Freylingheusen Arboretum, this property is now set up to be a sort of teaching landscape that showcases 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 whose descendants include 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 don't think I've seen everything.

But there is one path I took the second time where I discovered I could see the Duke mansion through the trees. This is where Doris, only child of James Buchanan Duke, lived when she was in N.J., one of her four mansions. The mansion is still kept up but it is surrounded by a large piece of land that is gated off.

That makes it rather sad. I doubt Doris as a child was allowed to explore the grounds. When JB was in he was driven (first by horse, then by car) to other parts of the farm to supervise whatever work was being 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 apart from the world. I’m glad when Doris died the Duke Foundation decided to open up the land as a self-sustaining park we can all explore.

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

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Linda Sadlouskos July 19, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Yes, Theresa is correct, and that dollar amount is in the ballpark. There was a leasing arrangement for 99 years, which already has been in place for a few years, since a restaurant (the Ninety Acres Culinary Center) and other facilities already are open and in use at Natirar.
cecile marie July 20, 2012 at 05:25 PM
two points about Natirar: 1. Natirar is Raritan spelled backwards 2. The restaurant, Ninety Acres, is not exclusive nor overpriced. The servers wear blue jeans and gingham shirts to give you and idea. The food is raised on the property or obtained through local suppliers, organic for the most part and as well prepared as the top restaurants in NYC. There are excellent wines on the list selling for less than the local wine store. You can spend a bundle if you want, but you do not have to. My husband and I book our reservations through OpenTable and almost always get the time we want, holidays being the exception. For our special occasions we partake in the "Bring me Food, Bring me Wine" offering which is a bit pricey but absolutely fabulous. We just sit back and enjoy for several hours in a beautiful setting.
Ryan July 20, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Definitely not exclusive. High priced with small portion sizes, but considering the quality and the well-crafted tastes you get - not overpriced. Going there tonight and can't wait!
cecile marie July 20, 2012 at 06:54 PM
If price is still a concern, try pizza and a beer! Eat in the bar with the kids and watch a movie on the screen over the bar. I personally like to go there for Sunday Brunch and order Moules Frites (mussels and french fries) along with a sparkling rose wine at under $40 a bottle - makes me feel like I am rich too!
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