February 17, 2021

Preservation of Bonaparte Estate Attracts International Media Attention

AN ERA GONE BY: This historic painting from Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze estate, by Thomas Birch, dates from 1818 and is one of many works of art documenting the property in Bordentown once owned by Napoleon’s brother. News of its preservation has caught the attention of news sources across the globe.

By Anne Levin

Since the New York Times published an article about plans by D&R Greenway Land Trust of Princeton and partners to preserve the Point Breeze Bonaparte estate in Bordentown last month, media from all over the world have been clamoring for the story.

“Yesterday I was on a call with a Spanish news service,” said D&R Greenway CEO and President Linda Mead on Tuesday. “Joseph Bonaparte was the exiled king of Spain, so they are so excited about it. It has been amazing to me how many people have come forward since we made this announcement, and how many calls we have gotten, from everywhere.”

Point Breeze was the palatial estate of Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former King of Spain and Naples. He fled to the United States in 1815 and bought the Point Breeze estate in 1817 from diplomat Stephen Sayre. The land is high on the Bordentown Bluffs overlooking extensive marshlands and the confluence of Crosswicks Creek and the Delaware River. The location, between Philadelphia and New York, was documented in many paintings of the era that can be seen today in museums. Remnants of tunnels, leading from Bonaparte’s mansions to the waterways, can still be viewed.

At the time, the estate included sculpture gardens, coach trails, bridges, stables, a gardener’s house, a lake, and a three-story mansion “that contained an extensive wine cellar, an extravagant art collection, and a library that contained 8,000 volumes, more than the Library of Congress at that time, and Bonaparte employed hundreds of people at the estate,” according to an article in Royal Central, one of the international news services to cover the story along with London’s Daily Mail and the Spanish news service EFE. There have also been calls from individuals with Bonaparte connections. “So many people have been in touch with us,” said Mead. “Some have said they are descendants of Bonapartes. Others have objects like chairs or china that have come from Bonapartes.”

The $4.6 million preservation agreement is a collaborative effort of D&R Greenway Land Trust, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, and the City of Bordentown. D&R Greenway has been involved for more than 25 years with the Abbott Marshlands, the wetlands area between
Bordentown and Trenton that is adjacent to the estate. Over the years, the land trust has held some programs at the Divine Word Missionaries, previous owners of the property.

Mead and colleagues first learned there might be an opportunity to purchase the property about two years ago. “The scuttlebutt of that time was that the headquarters of Divine Word needed to be moved elsewhere because of the cost,” Mead said. “We called the head priest and he invited us to bring an offer forward. We talked with the state, who immediately said yes — the Green Acres program had preserved land already, along the bluffs. Then we reached out to the City of Bordentown.”

It turned out that Mayor James E. Lynch Jr. had been raised in Bordentown and knew the property well. He was also looking for larger municipal headquarters, and the surviving building on the property fit the bill. An agreement was put together.

“From that point forward, we did studies of the property and negotiated for the contract. One of the staff people at the Green Acres program took the lead. All of us were working from home because of the pandemic. A number of developers were interested, for different reasons, and that was constantly happening while we were putting together what we could come up with for preservation. The final word for that had to come from the consulate in Rome. It was the first time in 30 years of doing land preservation that I’ve had to wait for something from the Vatican!”

The final word came in October. The partners had two months to get the deal closed. “It was a bit of a whirlwind, but it worked out in the end,” said Mead.

As part of the overall preservation, D&R Greenway Land Trust purchased the only remaining building on the estate, the gardener’s house. It is said that Joseph Bonaparte brought asparagus to the United States, and grew it at Point Breeze for the first time in the country. Mead said the gardener’s house should be open to visitors by next fall, and will eventually be fully restored.

“Often when historic buildings are purchased, it takes a long time to pull together funding,” she said. “The good news with the gardener’s house is that it is structurally sound. It just needs some cosmetic work in order to open. Eventually, we will put it back to how it was during Bonaparte’s time.”

Preservation of the property has been a dream of D&R trustee Peter Tucci, who has assembled a collection of Bonaparte artifacts including letters, books, furniture, and art. Following renovations, he will exhibit them throughout the gardener’s house. “You can understand why a former king would choose this for his home,” said Tucci. “Joseph Bonaparte spent what today would be about $50 million” to build his first house on Point Breeze.

The overall plan is for the property to be turned into a park with trails through the woods. Plans for interpretive signage and audio tours are in the works, said Mead. “People who live in the area will have a park, practically in their backyard,” she said. “But it will also attract people from all over, as evidenced by these international news stories.”