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Brush with Royalty

The purchase of a Bonaparte estate will preserve history while forging Bordentown’s future.

by Vince Farinaccio

Following the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers dismissed the notion of a ruling monarchy like the one from which the nascent country had just freed itself, thus guaranteeing a U.S. fascination with the royalty it was denied. It may be best displayed through our enthrallment with the courtships and marriages of Britain’s Royal Family, but there are other examples.

Recent news about the purchase of the Point Breeze estate in Bordentown now promises to rekindle interest in Burlington County’s 19th century brush with royalty. Point Breeze once belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, former King of Naples and Spain and New Jersey resident for approximately two decades in the early 1800s. A four-part series about him appeared four years ago in this column, but the latest news from Bordentown merits a revisit.

Upon acquiring the 211-acre Point Breeze estate in 1816, Bonaparte constructed a palatial mansion and expanded his property to over 1,800 acres to include underground tunnels, sculpture gardens, seven bridges and a lake. The mansion, according to a recent article in the New York Times, was “a three-story, nearly 38,000-square-foot” structure that was destroyed by fire in 1820. A second home, reportedly set further back, was built shortly thereafter.

Like the first mansion, the second dwelling no longer exists, having been razed around 1850 by Henry Beckett, who purchased the estate from Philadelphian Thomas Richards in 1847. Richards had bought Point Breeze from Bonaparte’s grandson Joseph, who was willed the property after his grandfather’s death in 1844.

Until December 18, 2020, the estate had belonged to the Catholic missionary organization the Society of the Divine Word for the past 79 years, housing semi-retired clergy, according to the New York Times. But the transaction two months ago saw the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the City of Bordentown and the D&R Greenway Land Trust purchase the estate for a reported $4.6 million with the intentions of using several of the existing buildings for some of the town’s municipal departments, preserving history and creating a new park.

Near the site of the original Bonaparte mansion, buildings identified in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article as having been constructed by the Divine Word will be converted into Bordentown’s City Hall, a police barracks and a community center.

Plans also include renovating the gardener’s house, which sits at the entrance of the estate and is the only surviving building on the property dating back to 1820. It is expected to be used as a museum to display artifacts and memorabilia from the Bonaparte collection.

During his two-decade residence in Bordentown, Bonaparte was well-known for his collection of jewelry and artistic treasures. According to the 1939 book The Bonapartes in America by Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance, “In a secret hidden cabinet in his library he kept a splendid collection of jewels. There, too, could be seen the crown and rings he wore when King of Spain. The art gallery had a notable collection of paintings with masterpieces by Teniers, Bassano, Bidault, Vernet and Rubens. The most valuable of the paintings, however, was the ‘Nativity of our Saviour’ by Raphael Mengs…Among the paintings that hung on the walls of Joseph’s mansion was a copy of David’s celebrated ‘Passage of the Alps.’ ”

The New York Times reported in 2008 that a team of students from Monmouth University under the direction of associate professor of anthropology Richard F. Veit had “worked to unearth the foundations of Joseph Bonaparte’s first house” and “recovered more than 14,000 artifacts, mostly remnants of china, marble and glass.”

Approximately 60 acres of the estate will be used as a public park.

The repurposed Bonaparte estate should attract quite a few visitors. Royalty has a way of doing that.

Jersey Reflections