On tearing down Doris Duke’s home

On tearing down Doris Duke’s home
By Martin Morse Wooster
Senior Fellow, Capital Research Center

(originally posted at Philanthropy Daily)

There are always new ways for foundations to repudiate their founders’ donor intent. But the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has come up with a new wrinkle. They are honoring the memory of their founder by tearing down Doris Duke’s childhood home, in which she lived until her death in 1993.

How do you honor your founder’s memory by tearing down her house? That’s a question the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has to answer.

At stake is a home currently being destroyed in Somerville, New Jersey. (As I write this, about half the house was torn down.) When Doris Duke was growing up the land (known as Duke Farms) was a country estate. It’s now some pretty well off suburbs.

In The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent, I contrasted the wills of Doris Duke and her father, James Buchanan Duke. James B. Duke was a donor who carefully thought out what to do with his money. His will not only specified the causes in which he was interested in, but even listed the percentages that the Duke Endowment had to spend on the causes James B. Duke was interested in. In addition, James B. Duke insisted the Duke Endowment spend its money in North and South Carolina. The result is that the Duke Endowment does a reasonably good job in honoring its founder’s wishes.

Doris Duke, by contrast, did everything wrong. The battle over her will is one of two I know of that was called “the Super Bowl of probate” (the other being Beryl Buck’s will).[1] All you need to know about the long and extremely convoluted fight over the Doris Duke estate is that at one point in 1996, there were 100 motions in court in which various parties in the case accused various other parties of various misdeeds.

(Oh, the other lesson from the battle over Doris Duke’s will is that it’s really not a good idea to hire your butler to be your executor.)

I have not seen the final version of Doris Duke’s will, but the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation said in 1996 that there were no instructions on what they were to do with the money. They said they decided what their mission was to be by looking at causes Doris Duke was interested in and then donating in these areas.

However, Doris Duke did have causes she was interested in, and these are served by operating foundations affiliated with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. One, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, operates Doris Duke’s Hawaii home as a museum for Doris Duke’s collection of Islamic art. A second, the Newport Restoration Foundation, which was created by Doris Duke, operates Doris Duke’s home in Newport, Rhode Island and preserves and maintains eighteenth-century homes in that city. Finally, the Duke Farms Foundation maintains Duke Farms.

When Doris Duke was alive, Duke Farms had a house and an elaborate garden. The Duke Farms Foundation is in the process of turning the property into a nature preserve with a few vestigial remnants of the home Doris Duke and her father lived in.

The Duke Farms Foundation explains their position in this “Q and A”:

Didn’t Doris Duke’s will direct that the house be maintained and restored?

Doris Duke left specific instructions in her will to preserve her homes in Rhode Island and Hawaii. Her instructions concerning Duke Farms focused on using the property for agricultural and horticulture purposes, and for the protection of wildlife. Unlike her direction for the other homes, she did not instruct that the house at Duke Farms be preserved.”

In addition, the Duke Farms Foundation claims that it would cost between $10-20 million to preserve and maintain the house. Duke Farms’s executive director, Michael Catania, told Newark Star-Ledgercolumnist Mark Di Ionno that “the way the residence is structured with plumbing, wiring, and piping, there really is no way to save part of it.” They say that the contents of the house were either given to other museums or sold to add to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation endowment.

The group opposing the demolition, known as DORIS (Destruction of Residence is Senseless) notes that Doris Duke lived in the house until her death in 1993 and that all of the degradation of the house occurred since then. If I were them, I would also question the estimates of house restoration. Recall in the Barnes Foundation case that one reason the courts allowed the Barnes paintings to be the subject of a worldwide tour in the 1990s was because the foundation claimed it would cost $15 million to bring the museum building up to contemporary standards. I don’t think that estimate was ever challenged, and it should have been.

DORIS makes two points in support of their claim. One was that in 1987 Doris Duke started a process whereby her house would be declared a National Historic Landmark. But, for some reason, the application was never filed. The other is the testimony of Elizabeth McConville, who was Doris Duke’s personal secretary for many years. McConville told Mark Di Ionno that Doris Duke considered Duke Farms home. “This was the place where she grew up and where she spent the most time with her father,” McConville said.

Unfortunately it appears that there is no language in Doris Duke’s will prohibiting the Duke Farms Foundation from tearing down Doris Duke’s house. This makes the case similar to the Belward Farm case, which I wrote about for the Pope Center. Elizabeth Banks and her relatives left her farm in Darnestown, Maryland to Johns Hopkins University for a campus for medical research. The evidence, including testimony from Banks’s nephew and the Johns Hopkins development officer who negotiated the deal in 1989, showed that Banks wanted something like a college campus on her property. Johns Hopkins, however, wanted a denser, town-center like “Science City” on her land. Because there were no restrictions in her will, except that Johns Hopkins had to use the property to conduct scientific research, the courts ultimately ruled in favor of Johns Hopkins.

So the case of Doris Duke’s house reminds donors to put all restrictions in writing. Don’t listen to anyone who says this isn’t necessary. The Belward Farm and Duke Farms cases show that legatees will get away with everything they can, unless they run into firm donor restrictions.

And I repeat my question to the Duke Farms Foundation: How are you honoring Doris Duke’s memory by tearing down her house?

(Thanks to Mark Di Ionno for alerting me to this story, and to Nancy Piwowar and David Brook of DORIS for their help.)

[1]The battle over Beryl Buck’s will, however, was once dramatized on “LA Law.” The Internet Movie Database tells me that Doris Duke was the subject of two made-for-TV movies. In one, she was played by Susan Sarandon, and the other by Lindsay Frost and Lauren Bacall.