Sunday, April 7, 2024

Astronomy and Family: The 1945 Eclipse

This post comes as many prepare to head off to hopefully witness a total eclipse tomorrow, April 8, 2024.

There are a couple Princeton connections to the total eclipse that took place on July 9, 1945--one being a "Princeton Party", presumably from Princeton, that journeyed to Montana for the event. The other has to do with a renowned astronomer named Chandrasekhar, whom Princeton sought to add to its faculty the following year. But I primarily want to tell of a familial connection I have to that eclipse nearly 80 years ago.

From a biography of my father, astronomer Al Hiltner: "In 1945 Hiltner and Chandrasekhar went to Canada to photograph a total eclipse of the sun. This represented a unique collaboration with the theorist Chandrasekhar, for I believe that the paper showing those photographs remains the only observational research paper ever published by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar." 

I found these photos, probably taken by my father, online. That may well be the family tent in the background, more often used for canoe trips, with Chandra standing in the foreground, maintaining the formality of a suit in the outback of Manitoba, Canada. 

They had chosen to set up on "a slight ridge commanding a clear view of the eastern sky some five miles southeast of Pine River."

It looks like they even installed a fence around their site, perhaps to discourage cattle or other animals from disturbing their equipment.

The combination of all their preparations and some good luck made for a successful mission:
"On July 9th morning the eastern sky was cloudy, but the drifting clouds produced a clear region some twenty-five minutes before totality. The entire sky clouded over again half an hour later."

By July 1945, Germany had surrendered and Japan would soon thereafter. According to wikipedia, Chandra worked in the Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds during WW II. He would surely have collaborated with Veblen, who oversaw scientific work at Aberdeen. That Princeton offered Chandra a position one year later, after Veblen's close friend, Henry Norris Russell, retired, may not be coincidental. Princeton's interest resulted in the doubling of Chandra's salary, as U. of Chicago increased his pay to match Princeton's offer. 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Veblen a "Towering Figure" in Mathematics

It's gratifying to see Oswald Veblen being more widely recognized on the internet for his contributions to American mathematics. There are still many tellings of history in which Veblen remains hidden, however. Meeting a retired Princeton-based physicist/violinist recently, I naturally thought of Einstein and told him I was researching Oswald Veblen's influence in bringing Einstein to Princeton. He said emphatically that it was the Bambergers who brought Einstein instead, through their funding of the Institute for Advanced Study. He then mentioned Richard Courant, and gave credit to New York University for bringing this great jewish mathematician to America after he was displaced from Gottingen by the Nazis. 

But behind both of these stories of brilliant and impactful immigration is Oswald Veblen, who was quietly instrumental in bringing many displaced mathematicians and physicists to America. A succinct, attractively rendered telling of the story, called "Collaboration and Companionship," repeatedly mentions Veblen's involvement in bringing Einstein, Hermann Weyl, Emmy Noether, John von Neumann, Kurt Godel, and Richard Courant to the U.S.

That webpage links to another entitled "Towering Figures," in which brief stories are told of four "key individuals in pioneering and continuing the growth of the American Mathematical community": J.J. Sylvester, Felix Klein, E.H. Moore, and Oswald Veblen. 

Veblen had a connection to each of the three who preceded him. His father, Andrew, would surely have studied with J.J. Sylvester at Johns Hopkins before moving to the University of Iowa in 1883 to teach physics and math--the same year Sylvester returned to Europe. And surely his father would have taken a 13 year old Oswald to hear Felix Klein speak in 1893 at the International Mathematical Congress held as part of the Chicago World's Fair. Oswald went on to study with E. H. Moore in Chicago, before moving to Princeton. 

A couple asides: Biographies of Sylvester and Klein mention their work to encourage women to pursue careers in mathematics, as did Veblen.

On a more autobiographical note, I expect the Veblens would also have witnessed the 40 inch refracting telescope on display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. When I was growing up 70 years later, my father, W. Albert Hiltner, was director of Yerkes Observatory, where that largest of refracting telescopes still functions beneath the big dome. The Collaboration and Companionship story also describes how the Manhattan Project convinced President Hutchins of the University of Chicago to "throw massive resources into the reorganization" of the physics and math departments near the end of World War II. That funding and resources may be why I grew up where I did, as my father was hired by the U. of Chicago astronomy department around that time. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Exploring Veblen House Genealogy

By chance and serendipity, through friends in Durham, NC, I learned of Patricia Brady, an expert genealogist who teaches at Rutgers University. After a career as a therapist, Pat has become an avid genealogist who has generously offered to explore the lineages of former owners of the Veblen House. 

She began by researching the Whiton-Stuarts--the idiosyncratic and once wealthy couple who moved the prefabricated house to Princeton in 1931, and had the house interior customized with oak trim and paneling. 

Now she is turning her expertise and energy to the lineages of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, 50 years after they made their last gift of land and home to the public. The Veblens donated the first nature preserve in Princeton and Mercer County: 82 acres for Herrontown Woods back in 1957. Then, when Elizabeth Veblen died fifty years ago, on January 26, 1974, the Veblen House and its 14 acres were added to Herrontown Woods. 

Thanks to Patricia for sharing her passion and knowledge, in exploring the history of those who made history. 

Historical Clues on an Old Tin Roof

When we successfully fought off attempts by Mercer County in 2017 to demolish the Veblen House and Cottage, we had a lot of allies. Community support was crucial, as was support from members of town council. Largely unsung, however, was the quiet work of the Veblen House roof to keep the structure dry since 1941. Mischaracterized in a 2011 study as consisting of cedar shingles, the roof is in fact made of two different materials. On top is a metal roof, and along each side are shingles made, surprisingly, of asbestos cement. Asbestos cement? It sounds dangerous, but we've been reassured that the shingles are "non-friable", and could be taken off by any licensed roofer. Back in 1941, asbestos cement shingles were considered more durable than cedar shingles, and less costly than slate. This combination of ultra-durable roofing materials has protected the house since the Veblens had it installed 82 years ago, with only a couple minor patches required in recent years. 

The roof fooled the professional firm back in 2011, and it fooled us for many years, until we finally got a ladder long enough to climb up and discover that the top portion of the roof is metal. 

A stamp on the metal reveals its maker: Fable and Company. The stamp says:

401 B

When we first found this stamp six years ago, I assumed the roof had been part of the prefab moved to Princeton from Morristown by the Whiton-Stuarts, I sent an email to the Morris County Historical Society, hoping that they'd recognize the company name. 

A quick response came from historian Sara Weissman.

"The enclosed indicate that Fable and Co launched in Philadelphia in January 1921. The news item is from Sheet Metal Worker issue of Jan. 7, 1921, p 474. "

Sounds like sheet metal was a big deal back then, if a publication dedicated to the subject is 500 pages long.

Her email continued, "The box ad with slogan is from the Swarthmore College yearbook of 1936. Firm principal Frederick A. Fable died in 1944, age 81, still president of Fable & Co, per his death certificate."

The Veblens added the roof to the house in 1941, and if the roofing tin truly is "of unexcelled quality," as its 82 years of service attest, that fits with the reputation of the Veblens, and the Matthews Construction Company, which built many buildings on Princeton University campus, along with Veblen's roof.

Interestingly, in my inquiry, I had misspelled the name as "Fabel," but Sara found that I was not the only one to misspell the business owner's name. "He was recorded as Fabel in the 1900 Census."

The steeper portion of the gambrel roof are covered with asbestos cement shingles. It should be said right off the bat that the shingles are "non-friable", not considered a hazard in their current state, and can be safely removed by any licensed roofer. (Small amounts of asbestos inside the house have already been removed, thanks to support from the municipality.)

We found some labeling on a few extra shingles left in the attic. They were Granada Red, No. 7 M, manufactured by Johns Manville. Asbestos composite shingles were produced to replace not only wood shingle siding, but also slate roofing shingles.

As most people know, asbestos was at first highly touted for myriad uses in buildings, ships, and elsewhere, but its embrace in manufacturing did not end well. As tells the story:
In the 1970s and ‘80s, thousands of people began developing serious illnesses as a result of exposure to the company’s asbestos products. Many instituted legal actions against Johns Manville, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1982.

After decades of bankruptcy proceedings and changes in ownership, Johns Manville still manufactures construction materials, but now they are asbestos-free.

Now, in 2024, the Veblen House roof has begun to develop small leaks here and there. We will likely need to replace it rather than do repairs, but it speaks to the quality of the house that the roof has served well for 82 years. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Long-Awaited Foundation Repairs Now Complete

As 2023 draws to a close, it's time to celebrate a big step forward in the repair of Veblen House. A mason and his crew arrived last week to pour footings and underpin eroded areas of the house's foundation in the basement. 

Back in 2011, a detailed assessment of the Veblen House was conducted by a local architectural firm that noted, among other things, erosion beneath the chimney's foundation. Repair was characterized as "urgent." A cynic might say that the report, with its high calculated pricetag for restoring the house, was meant less to spur repair than to intimidate anyone wishing to take the project on. The report detailed all of the house's flaws, and none of its assets. Seeing promise where others saw only expense, we remained undaunted.

The sense of urgency was lessened slightly when I took a closer look under the chimney, and found that only a third of it had been undermined. 

Still, it was a great relief this past week to see the chimney, and a couple other spots in the house's foundation, at last properly underpinned with concrete. 
The cement arrived in a miniature cement truck, which promptly got stuck on ground softened by a heavy rain earlier in the week. Herrontown Woods was created by the Veblens specifically as a place to get away from motorized vehicles, so it's amusing to see how the land itself enforces their decree. 
The crew quickly adapted, carting the concrete down to the house in wheelbarrows.
Bucket after very heavy bucket of cement was handed down through the trapdoor in the kitchen to waiting hands in the basement,
where it was poured into moulds to form footings. Our desire to use Veblen House for events requires reinforcement of the already sturdy floors. 
The masons had to get creative where the footings intersected with existing structures.
Cutting into the basement floor for one of the footings revealed a drainage pipe running beneath the floor. This pipe may well connect to a series of wells outside. The Whiton-Stuarts, who built the house and lived in it for the first ten years before selling to the Veblens, had many horses. It's possible that seepage underneath the basement flows into wells that may at one time have provided drinking water for the horses
The masons reconnected the severed drainage pipe so that it can continue to help keep the basement dry.

Thanks goes to FOHW board member Scott Sillars, who was able to find a mason to do the work (we had been searching on and off for years), and to our supporters whose donations fund repairs.

The Hidden Veblen

When we formed the Friends of Herrontown Woods in 2013, the nature preserve the Veblen's had donated 56 years prior for public use had become overgrown, their house and cottage boarded up. The same could be said for Oswald's legacy, which was nowhere to be found in the halls of Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study. There are many examples of Oswald Veblen--his influence and sometimes his very existence--going unmentioned. Here, from the annals of conspicuous omissions, are a couple examples, found recently while researching how Einstein ended up living in Princeton for the last two decades of his life. 

The wikipedia page for the Institute for Advanced Study makes clear Veblen's profound influence:

The eminent topologist Oswald Veblen at Princeton University, who had long been trying to found a high-level research institute in mathematics, urged Flexner to locate the new institute near Princeton where it would be close to an existing center of learning and a world-class library. In 1932 Veblen resigned from Princeton and became the first professor in the new Institute for Advanced Study. He selected most of the original faculty and also helped the institute acquire land in Princeton for both the original facility and future expansion.

But as of this writing, in December, 2023, no mention of Veblen can be found in Einstein's wikipedia entry, an omission that becomes all the more conspicuous when he is excluded from the list of initial faculty members:

Another example of the "hidden Veblens" is the wikipedia page for Owen Willans Richardson, the Nobel Prize-winning brother-in-law of Oswald. The entry mentions one of Owen's sisters, but not Elizabeth and Oswald.

This entry I was able to fix. Einstein's wikipedia page has some protections that may make it harder to edit.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Veblen House and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

What are Donna Reed and James Stewart looking at in this scene from director Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life? What could elicit such looks of wonder and endearment?

Why, it's their dream home--a major fixer upper that hasn't been lived in for decades. The broken windows are reminiscent of what happened to Veblen House over decades of neglect, as is the love that the main characters George Bailey and especially Mary later apply to fixing it up as the movie progresses. And, as with George's guardian angel, who mingles with humanity seeking to earn his wings, the ways people contribute to the project at Herrontown Woods can make one feel like there are angels in our midst. But there's something else we noticed that the movie's fixer upper has in common with Veblen House: 
Zoom in and check out the balusters. 

I went back through photos of Veblen House from around 2008, when it had already been abandoned for ten years, and found a photo of the outdoor staircase we plan to rebuild. 

Was this architectural detail added by the Russian woodworker, said to have customized the house after it was moved to Princeton from Morristown, and where does its style hearken from?

Veblen House is no ordinary house, and Frank Capra was no ordinary movie director. Arriving in America from Italy at the age of six, he became the first in his family to go to college, earning a degree from Caltech in engineering in 1918. The engineering background gave him an advantage over other directors during the transition from silent movies to talkies. A recurring theme in his most well-known movies is the power of an individual to bring out the best in people. It takes a hero--someone endowed with steadfast love, courage, and a deep belief in community and human dignity--to overcome the worst impulses of humanity and mobilize our innate generosity towards one another. 

Writing this post, I realized that It's a Wonderful Life is an inverted form of Dickens' Christmas Carol. In Christmas Carol, it is the good will of the community that, along with major interventions by ghosts, ultimately releases the generosity latent behind Scrooge's entrenched greed. In Wonderful Life, it is the main character's devotion to giving and sacrifice that ultimately brings the community together in an outpouring of generosity. 

Oswald Veblen's life reads like a Capra movie. Through the first half of the 20th century, he devoted himself to bringing out the best in mathematicians and other scholars, by creating the circumstances--organizational, physical, and financial--within which they would have the freedom and resources to follow their curiosity and do their best work.

Political freedom is another key element in bringing out the best in people, so it's not surprising that Veblen and Capra sought to serve their country. In WWI, while Oswald Veblen was helping the war effort by applying mathematics to the improvement of artillery at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, second lieutenant Capra was teaching mathematics to artillerymen in San Francisco. 

In WWII, while Veblen was again in the military, coordinating scientific work to improve the accuracy of weaponry, Frank Capra also reenlisted, this time to work for Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. It was Marshall's vision to create films to explain to the troops "why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting." Capra created the series of films called "Why We Fight," which provided the philosophical foundation for the vast collective effort to defeat totalitarianism. 

Scientists like Veblen, and artists like Capra--patriots and heroes through the first half of the century--came under suspicion in post-war America, as the fear and repression they had long fought against took hold here at home. Both came under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee, because of the people they knew. The film industry and cultural mores were also changing, in ways Capra refused to accept and adapt to. He described the new paradigm as "Kill for thrill—shock! Shock! To hell with the good in man, Dredge up his evil—shock! Shock!" Meanwhile, prosperity-fueled development was consuming the rural lands in Princeton that the Veblens loved.

My respect and awe for Capra deepened when I found out he had produced a prescient film in 1958 called "The Unchained Goddess." About weather, it included a one minute synopsis of the threat posed by climate change. The movie uses animation reminiscent of his Why We Fight films. Instead of a map showing the U.S. being invaded by Nazis, the new invader is rising sea levels that could ultimately drown large swaths of the nation. America, having defeated totalitarianism abroad, was now threatened by a new invasion, partly self-inflicted, by "unwittingly changing the climate through the waste products of civilization." 

Unlike the great collective mobilization that brought victory in WWII, the country has shrugged off Capra's warnings about climate change, choosing instead to fight battles against other enemies, within or beyond our borders, real or illusory. Though It's a Wonderful Life has been described as "a saccharine apotheosis of private life and small town nostalgia," Capra's depiction of people as often their own worst enemy has relevance to the mounting political and environmental crises we now face. 

The movie's fixer-upper speaks as well to what we've found at Herrontown Woods, that a spirit of repair, whether of a traumatized nature or a neglected house, can lead to good things. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Math and Motion: When Our Limbs Become the Roots of Our Tree of Thought

I was told that Oswald Veblen did his best thinking while chopping wood. Similarly, a daughter of Joe Kohn, the great mathematician who died recently, told me that her father very much disliked reaching the point in aging when he could no longer walk, because walking was so important to his act of thinking. Though I'm not a mathematician, I've had insights and ideas come to me while washing dishes, chopping wood, or more generally when my hands and mind are working together. There is something in the connection between body and mind, as if our arms and legs were the roots of the tree of thought. Of course, the scientist side of my brain is immediately looking for evidence to support or contradict this thesis. Do those who have lost the use of their limbs also have eureka moments?

Recently I felt the urge to ask a mathematician if he did his best thinking while bicycling. The prompt for the question is something of a story. I was walking down the hallway of a medical building, fresh from my annual dermatology exam. There was an older couple walking just ahead of me, and they were disagreeing as to who would drive the car home. He wanted to drive, but she was insisting that she drive, given that he had just received some medication. He said he was just fine, however, and their back and forth seemed headed for an argument. In retrospect, it was as if I were a kid listening to his parents. Something came to mind, and I decided to go with it. Wishing to defuse the situation with some humor, I blurted out from a few feet behind them, "Okay, how about I drive you home?" 

They turned around, still in stride towards the door to the stairwell, and the man responded "Do you drive a stick shift?" This was music to my ears, as I love driving a stick shift. I told him about the '94 Ford Ranger I use for my work at Herrontown Woods, and as we headed down the stairs, we talked stick shifts we'd known, like the "3 on a tree" in my '63 Chevy station wagon--a car that was emphatically beige because my mother was big on beige. We continued to talk as we left the building. I said that when driving a stick shift, the driver must listen closely to the engine. That delicate interplay between clutch and accelerator--it's like a dance with the machine. (Though I didn't mention this, maybe that relationship is why my ear is also attuned to the sound of other machines, like when the furnace kicks on, and the implications for my personal contribution to climate change.)

As we reached my bicycle (I clearly had not thought through the logistics of driving them home), he recounted having taken a bad spill on his bike. He had been biking on Canal Road and gotten so caught up in mathematical thoughts that he didn't notice a pothole. 

My ears perked up when he mentioned math, given of course that I am working to restore Oswald Veblen's house. "Are you a mathematician?," I asked. He responded affirmatively and told me his name. His story fit well with a video a botanist friend of mine had posted a week before on facebook, in which my friend is riding his bike along a broad trail, one hand on the handlebar, the other holding the camera, pointing at different plants and calling out their latin names as he passed by. The video ends abruptly when he falls off of his bike, breaking a couple bones in the process. He's on the mend, but high-speed botany, like high speed math, has its risks.

Biking home, I wished I had asked the mathematician whether he does his best thinking while riding a bike. I looked him up, found his home page, and sent him an email. His response? "I haven't done much good Math thinking while biking. The accident was more than 20 years ago and it taught me to concentrate on biking when on the bike."

Not the answer I was looking for, but all for the best, and a lot more fun than an argument over who is going to drive.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Demarest & Co: More Writings Discovered Inside Veblen House

 One of the curiosities to be found on the newly exposed walls inside Veblen House are these slats. 

Stacked tightly, one on top of another, they were nailed primarily but not exclusively to the walls that enclose bathrooms. This is the wall between the master bedroom and master bath.
and this is the wall between the upstairs hallway and another bathroom. Their function is another mystery to be solved. Soundproofing, perhaps? But suffice it to say that each slat, if I can call them that, looked to us pretty much like all the others. 

But one day our carpenter, Robb Geores, came by, and Scott Sillars and I passed a couple fascinating hours with him scrutinizing the newly exposed guts of the house. Many a clue was found that may shed light on the house's multiple lives. 

We were upstairs in the study when Robb announced, "I found some more writing!" He was scrutinizing a single stack of those slats running along the edge of the chimney. 

There, you see it? Neither did we, but a really close look reveals that one of the slats is larger than the others.

And on it is some writing, revealing that it had once been the top of a packing crate, with the shadow of a stamp on the upper right. 

The crate was addressed to J.P.W. Stuart in Bedford, NY. That would be Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart. He and his wife Mary moved the house from Morristown to Princeton, and lived in it for ten years before selling it to the Veblens. Bedford was and is an upscale town that had not come up previously in our research of the itinerant Whiton-Stuarts, who had lived in Manhattan, Greenwich, CT, Prescott, AZ, Morristown, and allegedly in Tuxedo Park, before moving to Princeton. Can we conclude that he was well-known in Bedford, if a package could find him without a street address? (Note: Evelyne Ryan of the Bedford Historical Society wrote me that "it wasn’t until the implementation of 911 that many Bedford addresses had numbers – roads, yes, but not numbers." That would have been the late 1960s)

The return address on the crate's top left is 543 Madison Ave, New York City. We couldn't make out the name, though, until I showed it to Clifford Zink. "Demarest," he said without pause. He also pointed out the tiny "&" symbol after Demarest. "Demarest & Cook?", I ventured, before later settling on "Demarest & Co." 

Demarest proved to be J.C. Demarest, later fleshed out to James Cleveland Demarest, president and treasurer of an interior decorating firm. His ads appeared in these 1925-26 issues of Arts and Decorations, alongside articles about anything from bathroom adornments to the latest in literature, music, and art. A sophisticated critique of Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln rubbed shoulders with Demarest's conception for a well appointed dining room.

This Nov, 1925 issue had lots for the wealthy to contemplate, admire, and buy. Articles come in quick succession, with "The Hard Brilliance of Earnest Hemmingway" (also Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson) on p. 57, followed by some American triumphalism about skyscrapers in "The New Architecture of a Flamboyant Civilization", "Painted Doors are the Final Distinction for the Handsome Room", and "Great Modern Hotels of America." The magazine captures the world the Whiton-Stuarts seem to have inhabited, at least until the crash of 1929. Beginning around 1900, Whiton-Stuart owned a prosperous real estate company that specialized in high-end properties on Madison Ave. in Manhattan. Society pages tracked the Whiton-Stuart's visits to elite locales and later the seven or so marriages of their son and daughter.

Jesse grew up on Park Avenue, and collected photographs later compiled in a book entitled "Views and Maps of Old New York."

Another article in Arts and Decorations featured the home of prominent architect Grosvenor Atterbury, who in 1909 designed sophisticated prefab homes for Forest Hills in Queens. According to wikipedia, "each house was built from approximately 170 standardized precast concrete panels, fabricated off-site and assembled by crane." Whiton-Stuart would have been up on the latest trends in architecture--an engagement that may have led to his experimenting with the prefab construction now fully on display at Veblen House. 

Also found in the Arts and Decorations magazine was a full page color ad for Johns-Manville's asbestos shingles. Yes, hard to believe now, but asbestos was big in the 1920s, and the 30s and 40s, on up to the 1970s. The Johns-Manville company supplied some of the materials for Veblen House, as will be explored in another post. 

The March, 1926 issue has an article singing the praises of gumwood for paneling. Gumwood? Turns out they're talking about sweetgum, a native tree of which there are many in Herrontown Woods. I lived in a house in Michigan that had beautiful sweetgum paneling, but have not seen it anywhere since. There's no "gumwood" in Veblen House, but it does have two rooms creatively and expertly paneled with plywood parquet--a material that caught the eye and interest of an architectural historian at the NJ Historic Trust. That, too, is material for another post. 

You can see how finding the words "Demarest & Co" on a wall in Veblen House has set off a whole google-powered adventure into the life and times of the Whiton-Stuarts, but why would Whiton-Stuart, or his carpenter, have embedded that particular piece of a packing crate in one of the walls? Robb raised the possibility that the carpenter was simply using whatever wood was on hand. But every other slat nailed to the walls is generic and uniform in size. 

J.C. Demarest died in 1932. One story handed down about Veblen House is that a cabinet maker worked for two years customizing the interior. If the house went up in 1931, that would mean that Demarest died while the house was being worked on. The piece of packing crate was placed next to a hearth, upside down. A hearth represents importance. Might upside down have some symbolism for loss? More about any connection and friendship between Demarest and Whiton-Stuart may ultimately be found in the detailed accounts on society pages back then of who was seen where with whom. 

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Origins of the Wallboard in Veblen House

We've been very fortunate to find labels on the various materials that went into the construction of the Veblen House. The housewrap was called Sisalkraft. The wood sheathing appears to have been shipped by the Weyerhauser company from the west coast. The insulation--all one or two inches of it--was a Weyerhauser product out of Minnesota called Balsam Wool

Though the kitchen and bathrooms in Veblen House are coated with traditional plaster, the walls in other rooms were made of wallboard containing wood fibers pressed tightly together. Until now, the origin of the wallboard has been a mystery. Various kinds of wallboard offered a cheaper, lighter alternative to plaster for indoor walls and ceilings. Most homes now use drywall, also known as plasterboard or sheetrock, made with a combination of paperboard and fireproof gypsum. But though drywall was invented in 1916, it didn't come into widespread use until the 1940s, ten years after Veblen House was built.

Homasote is another kind of wallboard, and that name has come up occasionally in walkthroughs of the house. But though Homasote was manufactured in nearby Trenton, it was comprised of paper fibers rather than wood, and according to the wikipedia entry was not marketed until the 1940s. 

While most of the wallboard in the house was hauled to a landfill as part of the asbestos removal, we were able to save some. Fortuitously, the asbestos had been found not in the wallboard but in the skincoat applied thereon, presumably to make the wallboard look more like plaster. Since no skincoat was applied in closets, we convinced the town to save those sections of the house's "fabric."

And there, between the studs on the back of the wallboard in the vestibule closet, was a label, upside down near the floor. 


The label calls the material Insulating Board, to be used outside or inside the frame to provide some measure of insulation and draft reduction. 

This quote, believed to come from a book entitled Twentieth Century Building Materials: History and Conservation, serves as a good description:

"Fiberboard is a composite hardboard material made from pressure molded wood fibers. It had early precedents in the late 18th century, but was first manufactured in large quantities in the 1920s, with its use expanding in the 1930s and 40s. Fiberboard (or wallboard, as it is commonly known) was marketed by various companies, such as Masonite. It was used as sheathing for roofing and siding on the exterior, for insulation, and for interior walls."

Another excellent online source comes from the U.S. Forest service, entitled Early 20th-Century Building Materials: Fiberboard and Plywood. It describes what at that time were innovative products just beginning to come into widespread use. 

At the bottom of the partially torn label on the Veblen House fiberboard was just enough information to track down the manufacturer, Oswego Board Corp, NY. That name in turn stirred up a few fragments on the internet about that company, which had just formed a few years earlier, with its newly elected president, Floyd L. Carlisle.

Another snippet, from Poors publication, fills in the missing letters on the other name at the bottom of the label: Johns-Manville, which, according to the NY Times, in 1927 teamed with Oswego Board Corporation to manufacture and distribute "a new type of sheathing and insulating board." 

If construction of the plant began in 1927, our 1931 prefab must have been one of the first to be built with this new product.

Without that one label exposed and left undisturbed during asbestos removal, the story of the Veblen House wallboard might have been lost.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Clues on the Walls of Veblen House

In the process of removing asbestos from the Veblen House, the town's contractors have exposed some clues to the Veblen House's past. Most of the wallboard and ceilings contained a skincoat of asbestos-containing material, and were hauled away, revealing here and there a few words and labels on the underlying framing. All of this would have been covered up and "lost to history" if the contractors had painted all exposed surfaces white, as is the usual post-removal procedure. Fortunately, we convinced the town and contractor to apply for a permit to use clear sealant on the walls and ceiling instead. 

One signature on the south wall of the second floor looks like S. Hanlee.

From another angle, it looks more like S.S. Hanlee, so I googled "S.S. Hanlee" ship, and up popped the S.S. Hanley, acquired by Weyerhaeuser in 1923 as an ocean lumber cargo ship. The Hanley and the SS Pomona took lumber to the East Coast. Given that the Balsam Wool insulation in the house was made by Weyerhaeuser, and the house was built in 1931, it's not too farfetched to speculate that some of the lumber for the house, perhaps even the prefab panels themselves, came from that same company.

According to wikipedia, Weyerhaeuser moved its shipping operation from Seattle to Newark, NJ in 1933. The S.S. Hanley and other ships were later put to use for the war effort in WWII. It's conceivable that the S.S. Hanley was named after John Hanley, the only child to be rescued from the S.S. Atlantic, which sank off the coast of England in 1873.

Note: Thanks to a reader of this blog who anonymously sent a link to a photo of the SS Hanley in the Willamette River in Portland, OR. The photo was taken by Minor White, who moved to Oregon in 1937.

Exploring whether Weyerhaeuser ever built prefab houses, the University of Washington has information on a prefab built in 1932, back when the company was "interested in finding new outlets for its lumber." They did not pursue prefabs any further, however, beyond that one demonstration, according to this text:

Historic New England has information about Weyerhaeuser "4 Square Homes", based in St. Paul, MN. But it looks like "4-square" referred only to lumber used for kiln dried sheathing. The board with the S.S. Hanley inscription looked to be part of the house's sheathing.

Another inscription is less scrutible. "Gellning," maybe? Or Gellnig? Maybe that's a "C"? Nothing popped for those. Note: We have since figured out that this word is likely "Ceiling," since it occurs on boards at either end of the second floor, with one preceded by "N", the other by "S", suggesting north and south.

Another inscription was a misspelling of J.P.W. Stuart's name, on slats in the ceiling that hold up insulation between the first and second floors. One conclusion is that, whatever business supplied the slats, they didn't know Stuart well enough to spell his name correctly. 

Another item we found inside the walls is metal tags to mark the panels. Each panel is approximately 10' square and bolted together to make the walls. 

Some labels were found on the wallboard and the roof shingles that is helping identify those materials, but that will be taken up in a separate post.