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Doris Duke (1912-1993), philanthropist, collector, and preservationist, first came to Newport in 1915 at the age of three when her family began to summer here – for the first few years in a series of rented “cottages.” Her father, the tobacco and energy tycoon James B. Duke, would eventually buy Rough Point at the southern end of Bellevue Avenue, the former Frederick W. Vanderbilt estate, as a permanent summer home for the family. With his untimely death in 1925, Doris, just barely into her teens, inherited the estate along with most of her father’s great fortune.



Newport held little interest for Duke in early adulthood, when she preferred to spend time in Honolulu, New York City, New Jersey, and overseas. But in 1957 she was negotiating the gift of the family’s 5th Avenue mansion to New York University to house its graduate art history program, the Institute of Fine Arts, and she needed to find a suitable location for her parents’ fine and decorative arts collections. Rough Point stood empty at the time, having been closed in 1954, when Duke and her mother Nanaline, the sole summer resident prior to this, began to entertain proposals for the long-term lease of the property. To keep her parents’ collection intact, Duke decided instead to reopen Rough Point, and in the summer and fall of 1957 began to relocate most of the paintings, porcelain, furniture, and textiles from the New York house to Newport.


In the later 1960s, largely through her friendship with Katherine Warren, the founder of the Preservation Society of Newport County, Duke became concerned about state of the City’s earliest buildings. 18th-century houses along the historic Thames Street waterfront and Historic Hill neighborhoods were being demolished at the time to make way for widened roadways. As a counter-balance to these urban renewal efforts, Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968, and for the next 25 years, until her death in 1993, saving Newport’s colonial architectural heritage would remain a singular philanthropic focus for her. Under Duke’s leadership, NRF restored more than 80 18th- and early 19th-century buildings in Newport and neighboring Middletown, Rhode Island, most of which are still owned by the Foundation.



Duke’s approach to the historic fabric of Newport — to restore, hold, and lease to tenant-stewards — was unusual in the field of historic preservation but not out of keeping with her long track record as a collector of fine and decorative arts, including architectural material, and a growing impulse at the time to make museums for the lasting preservation and presentation of her collections. When she founded NRF in 1968, Duke was already a mature art collector who had begun to consider her legacy and public responsibility. In 1965, she added a codicil to her will that would make her estate in Honolulu, Shangri La, a center for Islamic art and culture, open to the public and showcasing her life-time collection of Islamic art.

In 1964 she opened Duke Gardens, a series of greenhouses with an extensive and wide-ranging collection of plants from around the world, at Duke Farms, her home in Hillsborough, New Jersey. In the 1970s, also at Duke Farms, she exhibited examples of Southeast Asian art and architecture, including a complete temple building, that she collected in the 1950s and 1960s with the unrealized hope of eventually establishing a model Thai Village in Hawaii. And once she had settled back in Newport in the late 1950s, Duke began to add significant works of European fine and decorative arts to her parents’ collections, possibly already with an eye to Rough Point one day also being opened to the public.



Coming late in her collecting career to colonial architecture, Doris Duke threw herself fully into the work of restoring the houses that she purchased for the Newport Restoration Foundation. From both documentary evidence and firsthand recollections of the architects and tradesmen who worked for her, she paid close, personal attention, regularly meeting to review drawings and visiting building sites to approve or make changes to work on individual buildings.

Duke also sought guidance from established preservationists. In addition to Katherine Warren, who inspired her interest in Newport’s early architecture, she consulted frequently with Antoinette Downing, the architectural historian whose efforts are credited with saving much of the historic College Hill district in Providence from threats of demolition in the late 1950s and 1960s. Downing’s 1952 book (co-authored with Vincent Scully), The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, was also indispensable to the early work of NRF.


It’s hard to imagine any other private investment in preservation having the magnitude of impact that Doris Duke’s has had on the cityscapes of Newport. The nearly $22 million that Duke donated to NRF represents the largest gift to any single organization in her lifetime. Equally remarkable is how the early strategy of NRF to preserve in clusters — restoring several houses on one street or one block at one time — multiplied the impact of this investment by inspiring others to restore the remaining historic buildings in that area.

Learn More

NRF was only one of many philanthropic interests of Doris Duke, who gave away more than $400 million during her lifetime.

  • The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation continues this legacy of giving, with support for the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research, and child well being.
  • Doris Duke’s estate in Honolulu, Shangri La, can be visited 11 months out of the year through a partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art.
  • Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey, is free and open to the public year round.
  • The illustrated timeline on the Duke University Libraries website.

The first authorized biography of Doris Duke, The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke, by Sallie Bingham, is due to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2019.

Robert P. Foley, et al., Extraordinary Vision: Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation, Newport, RI: Newport Restoration Foundation, 2010

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