Little-known gifts of the ‘1 percent'

Posted: August 06, 2012

By Silvio Laccetti

In this time of concern about economic inequality in America, we sometimes forget the valuable contributions that at least some of the "1 percent" can make to the public good through philanthropic works. Among them are those of the Duke family, whose charity extends to their former estates.

One, Duke Farms, in central New Jersey, is a short trip from the Philadelphia area. Another is far away, in Hawaii. Both are now run by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and seeking to address pivotal issues of our time: respectively, environmental sustainability and understanding among the world's peoples.

Duke Farms, in the Somerset County town of Hillsborough, aims to serve as an environmental beacon. It offers more than 2,700 acres of hiking trails, bike paths, woodland discoveries, and applications and possibilities for energy innovation and environmental sustainability.

The estate's working geothermal and solar energy systems promote the environmental mission. Of special significance to the public is the community-gardens area, which allows individuals to cultivate small plots of land as they wish, as long as the result is consistent with the overall mission of the Farms.

This delightful oasis is still largely unknown to residents of the region, but that's changing, as the site was recently reopened after a $45 million transformation. An inviting, restored visitor center features a small theater and interactive displays on regional flora and fauna. The place is as inviting to summer day-trippers as it will be for visiting school groups later this year.

There is a significant irony to this philanthropy. The Duke family fortune, starting with patriarch James Buchanan "Buck" Duke in the 19th century, was built on the success of the American Tobacco Co., which led the way to mass production of cigarettes. The family's success was later nourished by Duke Energy, a major power company — and polluter.

There is certainly karma at work here. And it would appear that both Buck and Doris, his famous heiress daughter, appreciated that, since both were extremely active philanthropists in life as well.

Particularly Doris Duke, who died in 1993, turned personal passion and wealth into public good. During an around-the-world honeymoon in the 1930s, she became enthralled with Islamic art and culture. She went on to painstakingly and passionately decorate some of her living quarters with treasures she bought or had specially crafted in the Muslim world.

This work resulted in the spectacular Shangri La, Doris' onetime home on Oahu. In her later life, knowing the site would become a public treasure, she carefully prepared it to serve that function. Like Duke Farms, Shangri La is not well visited; unlike the Farms, it isn't expected to become so.

But its message deserves to be heard widely. In a strife-torn world, the former estate promotes cultural understanding through art. On its ornate front door is an inscription in Arabic: "Enter here in peace and security." This message, and the beauty of the artifacts in the buildings, offer hope for improving relations between the West and the Islamic world, because where there is beauty, there is common ground. (For more information, see www.shangrilahawaii.org.)

Showcasing efforts to sustain ecosystems and foster cross-cultural understanding, these two Duke philanthropies speak directly to the peace and health of the planet.

Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu.

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