The Somerset County Park Commission (SCPC) is the holder of all sorts of county green spaces, from Franklin Township’s Colonial Park on the Delaware and Raritan Canal to Far Hills’ Leonard J. Buck Garden, one of the premier rock gardens in the eastern United States.
However, only one of the county’s parks has a history and beauty so rich that the King of Morocco once called it his own.
The SCPC purchased Natirar, a 407-acre property named for Raritan spelled backward, from the estate His Majesty Hassan II, late king of Morocco, in 2004 for $22 million after he had owned it for 20 years and never spent a single night in the 33,000-square-foot, 40-room mansion built in 1912 on the site.
“This was a very unique purchase for us because it’s not a type of park we have ever had before,” said Tom Boccino, principal planner of land acquisition at the SCPC. “We took this large estate and turned it into a park. Usually we are buying vacant land and building and here, we are altering it as little as possible.”
Since there are existing farm ways on the site, alongside historic estate buildings, the SCPC chooses to utilize those existing features for visitors, usually those looking for a pleasant walking trail, to enjoy.
Boccino said, “It is relatively flat and smooth and very desirable for people to walk.” The SCPC also uses the property for various events, such as cross country races or festivals.
However, the outdoorsy aren’t the only ones heading to Natirar. Being that the area was subdivided with the Somerset Improvement Authority, the property is also host to Ninety Acres, an upscale New American restaurant, making it quite the partnership between the public and private sectors. A hotel, spa and conference center are also in the works as this portion is owned by Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines.
“The county didn’t have the resources to maintain these buildings and we wanted them to be saved, so for the county to work with a private group with the condition that the public could use the property is ideal,” said Boccino.
To allow the public to appreciate the historic property to its fullest extent, the SCPC has also made very few changes to the area, besides adding a trail network and doing exterior renovations to the buildings on the site, which are currently not open for visitors.
On the estate are 22 buildings, many of which are historic and date from the mid-eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries including the mansion, two cottages, a carriage house and a greenhouse, as well as six wells, three bridges, three streams, a pond and woodland. The North Branch of the Raritan River and the Peapack Brook also cross the property.
The park is made up of about 244 acres in Peapack-Gladstone, 124 acres in Far Hills, 40 acres in Bedminster and 89 acres that encompass the restaurant and where the spa will be.
“People say that it’s really scenic and tranquil. They appreciate that it’s left undisturbed,” said Boccino. “The feeling is that they are walking through an estate. You appreciate the serenity of it and it feels like you are going back in time.”