Thursday, April 15, 2021

Installations and Spring Cleanings on the Veblen House Grounds

The Veblen House project is very much about utilizing "found" materials. Herrontown Woods and the house itself can be considered "found," in that they have undergone a process of discovery and recovery by volunteers after years of institutional neglect. The latest "finding" by the Friends of Herrontown Woods consists of some old plastic decking that we managed to spare a trip to the landfill. Volunteer Robert Chong asked if we could use the 20 year old planks he was replacing at his home in West Windsor. 

The offer fit perfectly with our plans for a stage for performances on the Veblen House grounds. Some of the boards had warped somewhat over the years, and we were going to let Robert throw those out until we realized we could lay them on the ground, as a base for the 4x4's to be laid over top.

Though the black locust 4x4's are rot resistant, having them not directly touching the ground should help them to last even longer.
The final layer of this reuse sandwich was the most serviceable plastic decking planks, creating a nice flat, durable surface for performers. Thanks to Robert for not only donating the materials but helping put the stage together.
Elsewhere on the grounds, our friend Victorino, whom I think of as a chain saw virtuoso and an angel, for all the help he gives us, cut up red maple logs that had been lying in front of the Veblen House since the trees were felled last year. Several volunteers--Owen, Andy, Becca and Andrew--helped move the wood away from the house for future splitting.
There's also a new trail up to Veblen House from the parking lot, with a bridge over some muddy ground. It too is built using found materials--the very long pallet upon which Robert's new decking had arrive, and some scavenged planks. The new trail follows a stream, and passes by what once was a fenced in garden where Elizabeth Veblen propagated her daffodils. 
The fish pond next to Veblen House got a spring cleaning, thanks to Inge Regan, who dug a foot of muck out of the bottom. 
She was happy to find the pond has a flat bottom, not seen in two decades. 

Elsewhere on the grounds, "food forests" of pawpaw, hazelnut, plum and butternut were getting vines pulled and protective cages repaired. 

What makes all of this worth the effort? It's the beauty and tranquility of the setting that certainly must have cast a spell on the Veblens when they bought the house in 1941, and now casts a spell upon us. 


Some Early Spring Flowers on the Veblen House Grounds


Since we removed the wisteria, honeysuckle, and other invasive plants that long obscured the Veblen House grounds, it has become possible to enjoy the remnants of Elizabeth Veblen's garden. Snowdrops, here in a photo by Joan Marr, peak in late March,
followed by a wave of Scilla at the beginning of April.

The first couple weeks of April are also prime time for daffodils, with most of them likely planted by Elizabeth Veblen and her groundskeeper Max Latterman. 

We've sought to restore some of the daffodils in the meadow, where mowing by the county in past decades had greatly reduced their numbers. Daffodils won't survive in a lawn if their leaves are mowed down before the underground bulbs have stored enough solar energy for the next year's bloom. 

A Japanese andromeda flatters the backside of the house,
and the second week of April brings blooms of a few remaining primrose, 
along with a couple clusters of a pretty flowers called "snowflake." It has the genus name Leukojum, in the Amaryllis family. 

Photos from the 1950s show a garden resplendent with tulips and fruit trees--apple, pear and quince. The tulips fell to the rising deer population, and only one pear tree remains from the small orchard that surrounded the house.

Elizabeth died in 1974, but the gardens were maintained to some extent for years afterwards, by the Dogwood Garden Club that used to hold its meetings at the house, and by the Wells family that rented the house from Mercer County until 1998. Wisteria vines took over in the years of neglect that followed.

Native plantings have been added by the Friends of Herrontown Woods since it formed in 2013, mostly in the form of raingardens that divert runoff away from the house. Though many spring ephemerals are blooming in the woodlands beyond the house grounds, the raingarden natives are only now beginning to stir, and won't bloom until summer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Who Put the Herring in Herringtown, and the Whiton-Stuarts in Princeton?

The name Herrontown, which lives on in Herrontown Woods and Herrontown Road, keeps trying to merge with the word "herring." Some people call the preserve "Herringtown Woods," either because the word "herring" is more familiar, or they just like the sound of it. Some claim that Herrontown Road was originally called "Herringtown Road," so named either for fish wholesalers nearby along the Millstone River or for farmers who fertilized the rocky soil with herring from the ocean. Jac Weller, a Princeton University football star and historian who later ran a farm on land where Smoyer Park now stands, across Snowden Lane from Herrontown Woods, wrote an article in the Recollector about the small landholder farmers in "Herringtown" who supposedly brought wagonloads of fish back from the coast to fertilize their vegetables.

That article is an important documentation of the farming era from which the Veblen Cottage sprung, but the only part of the herring story to be verified thus far is that members of the herring family of fish definitely did swim up the Millstone River, in the form of shad and river herring. 

Into these herring-rich waters of historical speculation swam this past fall a human Herring. I had been asked by a friend to teach him about the flora growing in his backyard along Arreton Road in Princeton. As I gave names to the towering trees and native and nonnative shrubs in his woodlot, he explained that his land had previously been part of a large equestrian estate owned by Donald Grant Herring. Crossing a stream that runs through my friend's property, I looked down and spotted an old, rusty horseshoe. Knowing how much Jesse Whiton-Stuart, the builder of Veblen House, loved horses, my curiosity was piqued. Might there be some connection between this Herring and Herringtown, and between the Herrings and the Whiton-Stuarts?

Donald G. ("Heff") Herring made a big name for himself in Princeton in the first quarter of the 20th century, according to an article entitled "A Bloomsburg Boy Makes the Big Time." Son of a Pennsylvania senator, he went to prep school in Lawrenceville. Entering Princeton University in 1903, he starred in football and wrestling, and was master of ceremonies at his class's commencement. As Princeton's first Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford University, he excelled at British sports, including rugby. After gaining a masters degree, he returned to Princeton to teach english and write sports columns that were avidly read. In WWI, he again excelled as part of an elite squadron of pilots who flew missions over France. 

Having married Jessie Markham in 1910, he returned to Princeton after the war and together they bought land overlooking the divide where 206 crosses the Princeton ridge. These 117 acres became Rothers Barrows, an equestrian estate with 
an “extraordinarily elegant stone house” designed by noted architect Wilson Eyre in the Arts & Crafts style. Eyre also designed the landscaping in the “Chestnut Hill” style characterized by native trees; there was a stone-walled sunken terrace, a croquet lawn, and for the horses a show ring and barn and a 960- yard race track.

A 2018 tour guide by the Historical Society of Princeton states that,

In constructing their estate, the Herrings prioritized their recreational interests, completing the barns and stables in full, but only fulfilling about one-third of Eyre’s original plans for a large, three-wing manor house.  

Theirs was one of several estates that ringed Princeton at that time, including Edgerstoune, Constitution Hill, Drumthwacket, and Tusculum. For two decades, from 1919 to 1939, the Herrings lived a life of high society. They hosted Stony Brook Hunt Club events (like this one in 1933) and would show up on the society pages when, for instance, they spent a winter in Lausanne, Switzerland, where their four children attended school.

It's probably coincidence that their last name was Herring, and that their address, 52 Arreton Road, can also be found in the 452 Herrontown Road address for Veblen House. 

But it is likely not coincidence that the Whiton-Stuarts' arrival in Princeton in 1930, and their departure around 1940, tracked closely the rise and fall of the Stonybrook Hunt Club (1928-1937) and the club's hosts at Rothers Barrows. The Historical Society of Princeton found the Whiton-Stuarts listed as "hunting members" of the hunt club in 1931. Somewhere in this 1937 photo of the Stonybrook Hunt Club, the Whiton-Stuarts may be standing. 

According to Community News, "financially impacted by the Great Depression, the Herrings sold Rothers Barrows 20 years after the house’s completion." That would have been around 1940.

Around that time, in the fall of 1939, tragedy struck the Herring family when their son, Donald Jr., lost a leg after complications from a Princeton University football game injury required amputation. The injury, which sparked renewed concerns about the sport's safety, came just before Donald Sr's book, 40 Years of Football, was published, on Jan. 1, 1940. The father's defense of the game in newspapers describes the nationwide attention given to the incident. 
It is the fervent hope of the boy who was injured, and of his family, that no foolish outcry against football may be raised as the aftermath of an accident almost unprecedented in the seventy-year history of the game. Somehow, I do not pretend to know why, this incident has captured the imagination of the American public. A veritable flood of messages of warm hearted sympathy has poured in, from intimate friends, from heads of universities, from many college organizations, both graduate and undergraduate, from football teams, from individual players and coaches, past and present, from the medical and surgical professions, from men and women who have lost limbs; from the press, and particularly the sporting writers, from a wide and deep cross section of the American people.
He went on to find connection with the outbreak of WWII just months prior:
We Americans have been infumed by the controlled press of certain other nations that we are a soft people, because we thrill to the march of an eleven down the field instead of to the tramp of armies of our boys toward and over a neighbor's frontier.
In 1943, the big stone barn at Rothers Barrows burned down, along with 6000 tons of soybeans. 

But two other houses from the original estate survive just down the street from the mansion. 
There are also some photos of some of Donald Sr's mementos, found in a trunk.

The Whiton-Stuarts sold their house to the Veblens in 1941, but many things suggest that Jesse in particular would have spent the decade prior riding his horses along the Princeton ridge, mingling with Pynes, Herrings, and others of means. 

Also riding Whiton-Stuart's horses was his caretaker, Max Latterman, who spoke of that time in an article from 1980:
Latterman’s responsibilities, while employed by Mr. Stuart, included caring for the grounds, the two houses, the barn, shed and hay barrack, and also the hunting horses. Saddle sore or not, Latterman rode the horses every day to give them exercise. “It was not fun by the time I got off all of them”, he said.

Latterman continued as caretaker after the Veblens acquired the house, and though some accounts suggest the Veblens owned horses, the barn burned around 1950, and one item in the Veblens' wills suggests Latterman was able to spend less time riding horses and more time chopping wood and planting flowers. One of the stipulations in the 1957 deed for the Veblen's donation of Herrontown Woods for public use read as follows:

"It is specifically reserved by the grantors that the nature trails shall not be used for horseback riding.”

The Whiton-Stuarts likely returned to Greenwich, CT, another era in their lives, and perhaps in the life of the Princeton ridge, now past.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Who Put the Paulmier in Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart

Between them, the couple who built and first lived in what later became the Veblen House carried seven names: Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden. It has taken awhile to realize just how much lineage and pride each of those names might carry. 

Research on Jesse's middle name, Paulmier, began with an email received out of the blue, pointing to a mansion in Jersey City once owned by a Jesse Paulmier. Our Jesse of Veblen House, born in Jersey City, was clearly named after his grandfather, Jesse Paulmier, whose last name in turn came from Francis Zaner and Susan (McLaughlin) Paulmier.

John Beekman of the Jersey City Free Library, which happens to be located on Paulmier Place, provided some insights into Susan Paulmier's remarkable life, in the form of old newspaper articles from the Evening Journal. For a change, the articles invest more ink in the women than the men. According to our very helpful librarian:

"Susan Paulmier, widow, and her son Jesse first show up in the Jersey City directories in 1855. At first listed as a grocer, Jesse became secretary and later a director of the Jersey City Insurance Co. His mother did well enough as a real estate speculator to merit an obituary in the Evening Journal - though her son Jesse only got death notices, the more substantial being in the Argus.  His wife Cornelia got a brief paragraph even though she had moved out of the city."

The obituary for Susan Paulmier, on April 22, 1874, described her this way: 
Mrs. Paulmier was a remarkably active and energetic woman, and by her business capacity and industry in her younger days, and by judicious investments, had accumulated a large fortune. Her self reliant, independent ways, and her unusual business ability, were always noticeable. She was kind-hearted and generous, choosing always her own methods of doing good, and many of the poor will miss her sadly. 

The obituary tells of the heroic manner in which she died:

The death of Susan Paulmier, one of the older and among the best known residents of this city, which occurred yesterday, was very sudden, being caused by heart disease of the rheumatic type. Her death came almost without warning to herself or her friends, and was no doubt hastened by over exertion. The last act of her life, and the one which brought on the fatal attack, was one of kindness to a poor friend. Mrs. Paulmier, hearing that an old German woman, who had been frequently employed by her, was lying very ill, went by the horse cars to Greenville, where the poor sick woman lives. In the forenoon, for the purpose of making provision for her comfort, and remarked to Dr. Bowen, before going, that if the poor woman was found well enough to be moved, she would have her brought to her own residence to be nursed. Mrs. Paulmier, who was in her usual health apparently, little thought that she herself was so near death. She went to Greenville, and walked some distance over rough roads to pay her visit to the sick woman, and on returning in the horse cars was seized with a severe attack of the malady which proved fatal. She succeeded in reaching Dr. Bowen’s residence, near her own, and there remedies were applied which gave her much relief. She was removed in a carriage to her own house, and while the doctor was absent to prepare additional remedies for her, she went to bed and died almost immediately. Her son, Mr. Jesse Paulmier, President of the Jersey City Fire Insurance Company, had arrived home only a few moments before her death, not having been aware that his mother was ill. Most of the other members of the family are absent in Minnesota. 


It is likely due to Susan Paulmier's status in Jersey City that Mercer Street changes its name to Paulmier Place for a block, in the middle of town at the intersection with Jersey Avenue. 

The Barrow Mansion, which Susan bought for her son Jesse, dates back to the beginnings of Jersey City, when Cornelius Van Vorst owned much of the land and dreamed of turning what was largely tidal marsh into a fashionable suburb of Manhattan. According to the Barrow Mansion website, he divided his land in 1835 into large lots, one of which became Van Vorst Park, and along with William Barrow built twin mansions on some of the higher ground. Their families remained there for 30 years before selling the Barrow Mansion to the Paulmiers in 1868.

Susan also bought land next door where in 1880 the Paulmiers built Hampton Court Terrace, a series of seven row houses, described at the time as “The handsomest and most unique buildings in the city…" According to an article in Jersey Digs, the Paulmier's Hampton Court Terrace was "likely named after Hampton Court on the Thames, a castle in London, as the Paulmier family had deep connections to England." The deep connections to England probably refer to the ancestor Andrew Newcomb, who was born in England in 1618, then moved to America. When Jesse Paulmier died suddenly in 1879, his wife and three daughters moved out of the Barrow Mansion and into the seven row houses of Hampton Court. Perhaps as as continuation of Susan's tradition of assisting the poor, the Barrow Mansion was bought by the YMCA and continues to provide community services. 

The oldest of the older Jesse's daughters was our Jesse's mother, Jennie Madelein Newcomb Paulmier. Jennie's second middle name comes from her mother, Cornelia Bush Newcomb, whom on page 298 of Andrew Newcomb, 1618-1686,and His Descendants, is listed as one of ten children of the Honorable Obadiah Newcomb, an architect and builder who settled in New York City.  "He had a very large and valuable law library; was assessor and chairman of State Whig Committee; also, State Senator." 

I'm going to go out on a family limb and speculate that Obadiah Newcomb (1787-1857), our Jesse's great grandfather, is somehow related to Obadiah Newcomb Bush (1797-1851), an ancestor of the Bush political family. 

It appears that Jennie was the only one of the three Paulmier daughters to have children. After Jennie married Augustus Ward Whiton on Oct. 15, 1873, our Jesse was born on June 4, 1874, and according to Find a Grave, Jennie lost her husband less than one year later, on April 8, 1875, when he "died from an illness contracted when he was on his honeymoon in Europe ..." The father's gravestone, located some distance from the Whiton family's obelisk in Greenwood Cemetery, states simply "Thy will be done."

Jennie nearly lost her son Jesse as well, two years later. According to this account in the Jersey City paper of record, the future builder of Veblen House was saved only by the quick reflexes of his grandmother Cornelia.

Oct. 8, 1877, Evening Journal
Criminally Careless Driving
"A very remarkable and serious accident occurred in NY yesterday, with painful results, to Mrs. Jess Paulmier, of this city. Mrs. Paulmier, her daughter, Mrs. Whiton and a little boy about 3 years old, Mrs. Whiton's child, went in Mrs. Paulmier's carriage to NY, and stopping in front of the Vienna Bakery, on Broadway, near Tenth Street, the coachman drove close up to the curbstone, and Mrs. Whiton entered thestore to make a purchase, leaving her child in the carriage with her mother. Presently one of the immense coaches of the NY Transfer Company came dashing along Broadway at a rattling pace, and the careless driver of the coach drove directly against Mrs. Paulmier's carriage with such terrific force as to throw the lady out through the carriage door that was closed, shattering the panels of the carriage, and landing Mrs. Paulmier in the street. At the moment of the collision, Mrs. P. caught the child in her arms, and it was dashed out along with her, but fortunately escaped unhurt. Besides receiving a fearful shock, a large splinter of the broken glass from the carriage window, was driven into one of her limbs just at the knee, making an ugly wound. The injured lady was immediately brought home to this city, where she was attended by Dr. Horace Bowen. She is confined to her bed, and suffering greatly. Mrs. Paulmier's coachman jumped from his seat and secured his horse by the head, preventing a runaway. It is wonderful that Mrs. Paulmier and her grandchild were not both killed outright. The accident was caused by the criminal recklessness of the driver of the coach, who was arrested, and both he and his employers should be rigorously dealt with."

The New York Transfer Company's "immense coach" mentioned was a freight coach, part of a big operation started in 1870 to transport baggage between railroad terminals and steamship docks. 

Nearly two decades later, Jesse's grandmother's obituary appeared in the Evening Journal, at the bottom of a page otherwise filled with news of exploding locomotives, piano and jewelry thieves, rogue cowboys, labor tensions, poisonings, a suicide, and an outbreak of typhus fever. Sounds like it was a good time to go. She died on new year's day, 1895.

Mrs. Cornelia B. Paulmier, widow of the late Jesse Paulmier, died on Sunday at Lakewood. Mrs. Paulmier has lived with her son-in-law, R.W. Stuart, at 85 Park Ave, New York, since she left Jersey City about a year after her husband's death. The funeral took place from Mr. Stuart's residence this afternoon.

By then, our Jesse was 21 and off to college and world travel, but it suggests that he grew up with his grandmother close by. 

There are several other intriguing potential connections. Who are our Jesse's remarkable great grandmother Susan (McLaughlin) Paulmier's ancestors? Does the Paulmier name date back to Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, the celebrated French explorer? 

And what is this French website that explores the genealogy of the House of CROY, which dates back to the 12th century in Picardy? It includes mention of a Cornelia-Evelyn Paulmier, daughter of Jesse Paulmier and Cornélia Newcomb, apparently the aunt of our Jesse, who married a Belgian prince. 

- SAS Henri de Croÿ (21st generation?), Prince of Croÿ and Solre, was born in Brussels on March 8, 1860. He was captain of the Belgian guides. On July 14, 1884, he obtained admission to the nobility of the kingdom of Belgium with the title of Prince and the qualification of Serene Highness, transmissible to all his descendants. He died in Rumillies (Belgium) on February 6, 1946. He married in London (Great Britain), November 26, 1936, Cornélia-Evelyn Paulmier (born in Jersey-City: US.A, October 4, 1877), widow of William Scott, and daughter of Jesse Paulmier, and Cornélia Newcomb. She died in Ghlin (7011, Hainaut, Belgium) on December 17, 1943.

What we do know is that the Jesse who later built Veblen House grew up in very well off circumstances, first in Jersey City, then later on Park Avenue in Manhattan, surrounded by adults: his mother, step-father, grandmother, a tutor and no doubt some servants as well. 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Exploring Ancestral Connections Between the Whiton-Stuarts and prominent Ogdens, Stocktons, and John Marshall

Before the Veblen House gained its name, it was built and lived in for about ten years by Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart. Mary's maiden name was Mary Marshall Ogden, with ancestry reportedly extending back to one of NJ's founders, David Ogden, and Chief Justice John Marshall. There also appears to be a Stockton connection. Two generations of Stocktons studied with two generations of Ogdens in Morristown. How closely related these Ogdens are to Mary's ancestors, and whether Mary is actually descended from the Chief Justice as reported in her obituary, is unclear. An earlier post notes that the Whiton-Stuarts and Richard Stockton III were both members of the Stony Brook Hunt Club in the 1930s.

In an effort to clarify and confirm the ancestral connections, I'm assembling some info below (click on the "read more"). Lineage doesn't really say much about who Mary was, but it's a start. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

What Old Housewrap Tells Us About the Building of Veblen House

It was August 14 of this year, while beginning repairs on the east wall of the Veblen House, when we discovered the name Miller and Son. 

The name had been printed onto an early form of housewrap, found just under the wooden siding.
The name of the housewrap was Sisalkraft, named after the sisal fibers that gave it strength. Advertisements in the 1930s and '40s appealed to a home builder's thrift and high standards--"So moderate in cost, so gratifying in results." Words like "reenforced", "highgrade", "twentieth century product", and the slogan "Sisalkraft resists every draft" were reinforced by images of powerful draft animals--horses and oxen doing the work that needs to be done. The builder and first owner of what later became known as the Veblen House, Jesse Whiton-Stuart, was a lover of horses and surely liked the idea of his house being wrapped in images of horses. The house itself was ringed by a split rain fence, as if occupying its own corral. 

Sisalkraft, the Tyvek of its day, appears to have a Princeton connection. A 1927 Princeton Alumni Weekly reports that Princeton alum Charles Higgins, sales manager for Sisalkraft, had just moved east from Chicago to start a company branch in NY. Whether it was new to the east coast when the Whiton-Stuarts wrapped their house in it three years later is not clear.

Sisalkraft was 6-ply--a sandwich of alternating layers of kraft paper, bitumen and sisal fibers all pressed together. The sisal comes from an agave-like plant most associated with the Yucatan peninsula, where its strong fibers were big business, fading in the mid-20th century as synthetic fibers began to compete. The Sisalkraft label mentions "java rope", probably because sisal was also grown in Java.

Now, 90 years after the Veblen House was built, the paper has lost its storied strength and become so brittle it crumbled in our hands. 

Paul Davis of the Historical Society of Princeton helped us with some initial research on the Sisalkraft's Miller and Son label: 

"The Joseph W. Miller & Son Company operated on Alexander Street from 1928 through the late 1950's/early 1960's. According to their newspaper advertisements over the years in The Papers of Princeton, they were a building contractor, supplied building materials, milled lumber, installed residential heating systems, and delivered coal."

To put this in context. The Whiton-Stuarts moved their prefab house to Princeton in 1931 or so, and sold to the Veblens ten years later. More articles we found through that fantastic resource, Papers of Princeton, fleshed out the story of the Miller family and that era in Princeton. A 1942 obituary tells of Joseph Walter Miller's life:

"Mr. Miller was graduated from Princeton University in 1897 and afterwards attended Auburn Seminary. He was ordained in Spring Street Presbyterian Church, New York, and later preached in the Bethlehem Chapel in that city. In 1912, Mr. Miller moved to Princeton, where he purchased a farm. He was active in the Mercer County and Princeton Young Men’s Christian Associations, and a trustee of the First Presbyterian Church."

In 1928, Miller and his son Robert sold their dairy business on Provinceline Road and bought Boice's Lumber and Coal Yard at 316 Alexander Road. The younger son, Joseph, Jr, graduated from Princeton University in 1934, joined the business and also joined the Army Reserve Corps. Other suppliers of coal in town included some familiar names like Gulick and Grover.

Central heating with coal was coming into widespread use, often with furnaces that lacked fans to blow air through the house. Instead, the hot air would simply rise through an octopus-like tangle of ducts that spread from the furnace up into the various rooms of the house. Coal would be shoveled into the basement through a window, and fed into the furnace, requiring periodic stoking. Fans to blow the air became generally available in the mid-30s, five years after the Veblen House was built.

Soon after his wife died in spring of 1941, Joe Miller hosted a Men's Club picnic supper, after which "the oldest living alumnus of Princeton University, a member of the class of 1865," made "a short talk on the subject, "How to Live to be Ninety." Joseph died less than a year later, probably in his late 70s. 

As home heating shifted from coal to oil, Miller's sons began selling fuel oil in 1954. The Cold War influenced their business as well. By 1961, Joseph, Jr. was head of the Culligan Water Conditioning Company of Princeton, and attended a conference entitled "Survival," about how to minimize the radioactivity in drinking water in the event of a nuclear war.

Miller and Son may have merely supplied the Sisalkraft for the house, or they may have served Whiton-Start as contractor and supplier of lumber, furnace, and coal, conceivably continuing to provide services through to the end of Veblen's life in 1960.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Oswald Veblen Profiled in Princeton Magazine on His 140th Birthday

On this, the summer of Oswald Veblen's 140th birthday, the story of his life and legacy made it into the radiant glossy pages of the Princeton Magazine. An article entitled The Extraordinary Legacy of Oswald Veblen by Don Gilpin captures the breadth and depth of Veblen's 80 years on the planet, most of it spent in Princeton, first at Princeton University and then at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Gilpin weaves in quotes from Steve Batterson's article, “The Vision, Insight, and Influence of Oswald Veblen," and from Princeton University President Eisgruber's 2020 State of the University report.

What we've come to know is that Princeton would not be Princeton, and the Institute would not be the Institute, without the vision and quiet persistence of this man. He brought something of his Norwegian ancestry and midwestern egalitarian sensibilities eastward from Iowa, while his wife to be, Elizabeth Richardson, brought her charm, tea, and love of gardening westward from England. They met in Princeton and together they changed the world for the better, near and far.

The article also tells the story of our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, which is applying a dose of Veblen's quiet persistence to restore and revivify the Veblens' physical legacy--the house, cottage and 95 acres they left behind for the public to enjoy. We now have the lease the article mentioned, and can proceed with repairs to the 1931 house and the 1875 cottage, both of which have been patiently awaiting the attention they deserve.

The photos in the article are courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study archives, including this photo of the Veblens at the American Mathematical Society's 1950 International Congress, presided over by Veblen at age 70, as he was retiring from the IAS. Now, twice as distant in time from Veblen's birth in the hill country of Iowa, Don Gilpin's article is a fitting tribute to a legacy that keeps on giving.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Open Space Beginnings in Princeton

Thus far, the 1950s appear to mark the beginning of formal open space preservation in Princeton. The Marquand family donated 17 acres in 1953, "for use as a public park, playground and recreational area for the benefit of the people of . . . Princeton and its environments.” As farms were giving way to housing developments on the east side of Princeton, Mrs. M. Taylor Pyne, Jr. donated land in 1956 to Trinity Church--what we now know as the All Saints Church tract.

It was the Veblens who donated the first land intended to be preserved in its natural state, a year later in 1957. The Veblens had acquired their land in the 1930s and '40s, next door to Mrs. Pyne, Jr's horse farm on Herrontown Road. At the same time, from 1936-45, Oswald Veblen was busy convincing the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire the 600+ acres that became known as the Institute Woods

Funding for open space acquisition appears to have come later. The Mercer County Parks Commission had yet to form when the Veblens donated the first 81 acres. Up to that point, Mercer County had developed a golf course in Trenton and received a six acre donation of land near Washington Crossing used by scouts. The Veblens' decision to step up, and the subsequent formation of the Parks Commission, had in part been a response to a survey by the National Recreation Association, which found the county was "generally deficient in all types of recreation and park areas". The county would then point to Herrontown Woods as evidence that it was beginning to address this deficiency.

The 1960s began with the expansion of Herrontown Woods by Mercer County, and closed with the founding of the nonprofit Friends of Princeton Open Space in 1969. DR Greenway was formed 20 years later, in 1989. The private acquisitions in the 1940s and donations in the 1950s formed the core holdings that later partnerships of government and nonprofits would then build upon. The Institute Woods was saved from development in 1997. A substantial portion of the All Saints Church tract was preserved in more recent years by DR Greenway. Due to these successful collaborations, Herrontown Woods is now at the center of a long corridor of open space, with Autumn Hill Reservation to the east and the All Saints and Richiardi tracts to the west.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Building a House, Building Mathematics

When Oswald Veblen arrived in Princeton in 1905, having completed his PhD in mathematics in Chicago, he may have envisioned American academics much like this representation of the house in which his grandparents and 8 children had spent the winter of 1866 on the Minnesota prairie. For that first winter in what could barely be called a house, they lived in the basement, surrounded by a foundation and sheltered by a temporary roof. A large fireplace stood at one end, a cooking stove at the other, with a well dug in the middle. They made it through the winter, but in Oswald's grandfather Thomas's mind was the two-story house they would ultimately live in.

By the time winter arrived the next year, in 1867, Thomas had built the shell of the house, which he would elaborate on until it reached its final form in 1870, ten years before Oswald was born.

American mathematics in 1905 was like a basement on the frontier compared to the glorious universities in Europe that gave Oswald a model for what could be realized over time. Grandfather Thomas built his house in four years. Mathematics in America took longer, reaching parity with Europe and a golden age in Princeton in the 1930s.

Along the way, surely drawing on his grandfather's life spent building a series of four midwestern farms from the ground up, Oswald contributed to the evolution of mathematics, intellectually and institutionally, bringing talented mathematicians together and even designing the building that Princeton's mathematics department and the new Institute for Advanced Study would both call home in the 1930s--Fine Hall.

In an article by William C. Melton entitled "Thorstein Veblen and the Veblens", from which these photos are taken, the descriptions of Oswald's grandfather give a sense of an open and flexible mind, a bottomless work ethic, and family generosity. Thomas was "actively interested in innovations." He and wife Kari "were virtual dynamos until late in their lives." Thomas had a "penchant for making continual modifications when these seemed desirable as well as his evident lack of commitment to conventional construction norms-including straight lines, ninety-degree angles, and such things." Most telling, given Oswald's initiative to find a safe haven in the U.S. for displaced European scholars in the 1930s, is a description of his grandparents on the Minnesota frontier as "extremely generous in opening their doors to newly arrived immigrants (including relatives) who needed a place to stay."

Oswald, who had no children, inherited these qualities and applied them to making mathematicians and mathematics his family and his home.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Legacy Celebrated in Princeton University's 2020 State of the University Report

(This is a repost from the companion site,, Friends of Herrontown Woods)

2020 is looking like a good year for Oswald Veblen, whose 140th birthday we'll be celebrating in June. For those who like numbers, mathematicians or not, Veblen's life and career are framed by round numbers. He was born in 1880, began graduate work in mathematics in 1900, became emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1950, and died at his Brookin, Maine cottage in 1960.

Some deeply gratifying news came recently in the form of Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, in which President Eisgruber puts the legacy of Oswald Veblen front and center in a moving discourse on "the values and qualities that define us as a university."

Eisgruber describes Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." That's some high praise.

As Princeton University embarks on a new round of building, President Eisgruber pointed to Veblen's visionary role nearly a century ago:

"At a time when many Princeton professors had no offices and worked from home, Veblen imagined something novel: a building dedicated to mathematics and designed to generate intellectual community and exchange."

"Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later."
Citing Elyse Graham's articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about Veblen, the State of the University report also praises "Veblen's humanitarian courage," demonstrated through his early efforts to aid the careers of brilliant women and African American mathematicians, and his
"critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe. Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history."
The Friends of Herrontown Woods first heard that Veblen would be featured in the President's report a couple weeks prior, when the university's science writer contacted us to ask permission to use some of the photos on our website. As our nonprofit begins repairs on the long-neglected Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods, we are tremendously heartened to witness the ongoing rediscovery of Oswald Veblen's quietly extraordinary legacy, beginning with writings and presentations by George Dyson and others at the Turing Centennial Conference in 2012, articles by Alyse Graham in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and now this wonderful tribute to Veblen woven into President Eisgruber's State of the University letter.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Dry Stone Waller Visits Veblen House

It was an improbable chain of events that brought a dry stone waller to Veblen House. First, the local Town Topics newspaper published a new year's day article about our latest progress in saving Veblen House. Of the photos I sent them, they chose this one--featuring the circular stone horserun with the Veblen House in the background--to publish with the article. Little did we know how and where that article might travel.

Ten days later, a message came via our Friends of Herrontown Woods website:
"Hello!! I am writing to you because a friend of mine from the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada sent me a link to your article in the Town Topics about rebuilding the walls at the Veblen House. I am a dry stone waller from Vermont. The irony is that I grew up in Princeton as a child (ages 5 to 18) and lived down the street from Herrontown Woods!! I Went to Riverside School and Herrontown was just a bike ride away for me and my friends. Luckily we grew up without electronic devices and riding your bike and exploring the woods (and Lake Carnegie) was what we did. In fact, I have done the creek walk that connects Herrontown to Carnegie. These explorations of the woods was what eventually lead me to Vermont. 
I am now a dry stone waller here in Vermont and travel all over for work and dry stone festivals. I am also a teacher at The Stone Trust here in Dummerston, Vermont. Please check out the website. You will see that we are an educational center teaching the art and craft of dry stone walling. I would love to help with the restoration of the walls at the Veblen House. Their are many ways to go about restoring old walls and I would could help if you're interested. Have you thought about a workshop? I have been a part of many public workshops that people learn the craft and as walls get rebuilt. 
Have a great day and stay warm.
Torben Larsen
Windham Growers Inc. 
Herrontown Woods is most strikingly a combination of trees, rocks, and water. In my environmental work I've encountered organizations focused on trees or water, but never stones. At this point, I wasn't sure whether the walls he was talking about were the foundation walls for the buildings or the many rock walls in the woods left from a past agricultural era. A look at The Stone Trust website, whose motto is "In stones we trust," clarified what a dry stone waller does. The website opens up a new world where assemblages of stones--functional or fanciful--are juxtaposed with assemblages of people. Their faces glow with pride and satisfaction that seems rooted in the outdoor walls they have just constructed. Through collective action, the people become part of something larger than themselves, as do the stones that become part of a lovely stone wall. The way the photos are composed, the people connect to something elemental, while the stones seem to gain in humanity. Lately I've been musing that there is something soulful in wood that rubs off on those who work with it. Might stones have a gift to impart to us as well?

I contacted Torben, and a week or so later when he happened to be in NJ he came by for a visit. Soon he was explaining the logic of a stone wall. Gravity and friction are key to building a wall that will last 500 years. Stack "one on two," which is to say place each rock so that it straddles two rocks below. That way, part of its weight will rest on each of the two rocks. "One on three" is a weaker arrangement, because one of the three rocks underneath will be loose.

And be sure to "break your seams." Some areas of the horserun have running seams. The photo shows a couple running seams on the left, where a vertical line runs down through multiple layers of stone. Resting each stone on two stones below breaks the seams. Still, the horserun has endured pretty well, despite breaking some of the rules.

Each country has its own style of walling. I explained that the horserun was reportedly built by a German immigrant back in the 1930s, though it's unclear if he had brought any German stone-building heritage with him when he came to the States.

Taking a closer look at the horserun, I noticed its core is made up of smaller stones embraced by the larger stones lining the inner and outer faces of the wall. Torben called this "hearting."

Maybe all the king's horses and all the king's men will have more luck repairing this "check end" than they had with Humpty Dumpty. The sheer weight of the stones will pose a challenge, though. Torben said that this particular kind of stone weighs 175 pounds per cubic foot. He had some ideas about how the stones were originally lifted into place, but that didn't make it into my notes.

We then took a walk through Herrontown Woods, which surely is a kind of heaven for Torben, with all its boulders. While I tend to see the boulders as nature's artwork not to be disturbed, each with distinct shape and pattern of moss and lichen, Torben was seeing the rocks more as they must have been viewed in the 19th or early 20th centuries,

when the diabase boulders were being quarried for stone. One area of Herrontown Woods is pock-marked with the holes where boulders once stood, before they were split into pieces and carted away for various uses.

This block of stone must have marked the end of the quarry era, as it was never taken. Torben called the series of holes along the cracks "feather and wedging."

To be a stone waller is to be part of a network few of us have ever heard of. Torben is certified in Britain, and travels there periodically for stone walling events. Every now and then a gathering of rock wallers will do what Torben calls a "crazy build," like a "30 foot bridge, dry-laid," which is to say it's a bridge with a 30 foot span and nothing holding the stones together other than gravity and friction. He mentioned Sunny Wieler of Ireland, who builds intricate stone sculptures. We will never look at a stone wall the same way again.

Hopefully, Torben will return to Princeton to conduct a workshop, much like the ones The Stone Trust leads in Vermont.

After Torben headed back to his stone walling job elsewhere in NJ, I was still curious about the woman in Canada who came across the Town Topics article and is responsible for pointing Torben in our direction. Andrea Cross wrote a nice email back from her well-connected island in Lake Ontario:
"Great to hear from you!
I came across the article during the course of my daily business research which is focused on cultural heritage projects around the world. It was an active google search not an alert. 
You are right the story about the connections is pretty amazing.
Here I am living and working from an island in Lake Ontario and I come across your project. What moved me to take a second look was the lovely photograph with the dry stone structure in the foreground that was crying out to me to be restored!

I was professionally interested in your group’s efforts to create an interpretive or visitor center. However the stones spoke to me and it was an exciting “aha” moment...I am assuming Torben told you that I am active in the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada and helping organize many international festivals which is how I met Torben.

The article was especially well written compared with many I come across. I was moved and inspired by the success and drive of your group.
I thought of Torben and the Stone Trust in Vermont - maybe they might take on the project for you.
On a more personal note my father, who recently passed away at the age of 93, had a love of mathematics and would have been excited to hear of the connection.

In his career he worked at the Microwave Physics Lab in Palo Alto when they were developing laser technology and was one of three people from his company sent to launch one of the successful Moon Bounce operations that moved communications forward in a big way. Mathematics being key.
Anyway....All this is to say I am cheering you on !!

I had mentioned to Torben, if I may help in any way let me know." 
Andrea Cross
Amherst Island

Monday, February 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Early Days in Iowa

On this day, when Iowa once again exercises its outsized influence on the fate of presidential candidates, here's some research on how Oswald Veblen's childhood in Iowa may have influenced his values and his life. In a career packed with accomplishments, he was driven by multiple passions--for mathematics of course, and the advancement of American academia generally, but also for land and for buildings that could bring people together. Having achieved a position of influence, he used it to help countless others advance their careers, apparently unburdened by the racial and gender prejudices common in his time. He used it also to advance institutions and technology, most notably early steps in the development of computers.

Veblen was born and came of age as the country itself was coming of age, in that 30 year span called the Gilded Age, marked by industrialization and growth at the end of the 19th century. By age 20, neatly coinciding with the dawn of the 20th century and reflecting the urgency of the era, he had already gained two B.A. degrees, and was headed to Chicago for graduate work.

Most biographical writings about Veblen dispense with his early years in a paragraph or two, but a trip back to his beginnings reveals how Iowa exercised an outsized influence on what Veblen would later achieve. His four years at what was then called the State University of Iowa would be particularly influential, but this post will focus on the landscapes and buildings that framed his pre-college years, with music providing a brief meander, like the Iowa River he looked out upon from the windows of his childhood home.

It's good to start with a question or two. What, for instance, drove Veblen, a mathematics professor at Princeton, to insist on "supervising every last detail of construction" of Old Fine Hall, and what drove him to overcome opposition and convince the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire 600 acres that would ultimately become the Institute Woods? The degree of his passion for land and buildings is well expressed by Abraham Flexner: "The prospect of a visit from an architect usually cost Professor Veblen a day's work and a night's sleep ... He is a most excellent person, but the word 'building' or 'farm' has an intoxicating effect upon him."

Here, then, are some seeds from which a life grew.

Iowa, for most people, probably conjures images of a flat or gently rolling land of crowded cornstalks and scattered farmers whose opinions loom large every four years when presidential candidates come a'calling. Less known is another Iowa, of "abundant rock outcroppings," of "deep, narrow valleys containing cool, fast-flowing streams" and "unexpectedly scenic landscapes." Tucked into what's been called the "Switzerland of Iowa", a geologic region known as the Paleozoic Plateau at the extreme northeastern corner of the state (the red area on the map), is a town named Decorah, where Oswald Veblen was born.

By the time Oswald arrived on the scene in 1880, his father Andrew had received a masters degree from Carlton College in Minnesota, and had moved to Decorah to teach physics and english at Luther College. Andrew had married Kirsti Hougen, who had grown up near the Valdres Valley in Norway from which Andrew's parents had immigrated a generation earlier. Oswald, then, was the first child born into a family with deep Norwegian roots, living at the time in the center of Norwegian immigrant culture in America. Decorah is not only the home of Luther College, conceived by Norwegian Lutherans in 1857, but also the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, with the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world.

Along with the forests, abundant water and beauty that must have attracted Norwegians to that part of Iowa, a few other parallels can be drawn between where Oswald was born and the Princeton Ridge where he lived the last 20 years of his life. Like northeastern Iowa's bluff country, Herrontown Woods escaped the flattening effect of the glaciers, and has rock outcroppings and abundant springs. In their wills, the Veblens left behind some artifacts to be part of a "museum and library" at Veblen House.

When I mentioned Decorah to some friends who live in Iowa City, they made the astonishing claim that The New World Symphony--one of my favorites--was composed there. How could a Czech composer end up in Iowa? On the other hand, how did a Czech composer manage to so aptly capture the spirit of America in a symphony?

What appears to be true, after some digging, is that Antonin Dvorak composed the symphony early in a three year stint in the U.S. beginning in 1892. One year in, on the advice of his secretary, a homesick Dvorak headed not back to Europe for a summer break, but instead traveled with his family to a Bohemian enclave in Iowa. There they spent the summer of 1893 in a town not far from Decorah named Spillville, where Dvorak found a home away from home among many Czech immigrants, and soaked up the sounds and vast spaces of the American midwest. One of the string quartets he composed while there includes the song of the scarlet tanager.

Dvorak's visit to the midwest coincided with a momentous time in American history, during which he could hear the sounds of Native American music, played by Iroquois Indians who lived just outside of town, and then travel to Chicago to witness the latest inventions at the Chicago World's Fair. All of this must have seeped into his composing of the New World Symphony, which he completed while living in Spillville.

This mix of the ancient and the modern must also have seeped into Oswald Veblen, by this time 13 and living in Iowa City just to the south. Oswald's family hadn't stayed long in Decorah. In 1881, when Oswald was one year old, his family moved to Baltimore, where his father received two years' training at Johns Hopkins University before taking a position as professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Iowa. Oswald would live in Iowa City for the next 16 years, gaining seven siblings and two degrees.

Fittingly, given Oswald's future as a visionary who loved buildings and nature, the family home in Iowa City had a view, standing atop Mill Hill--a long hill overlooking the Iowa River--the same hill where later would stand the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. The address of the Veblen home was 707 N. Dubuque St. Though we have yet to track down a photo, it was by all accounts an attractive house, surely substantial to house a family of ten.

Here's a description by Dan Campion, an Iowa City writer who I reached out to after seeing his letter in the U. of Chicago alumni magazine, calling for the preservation of Yerkes Observatory, where I grew up.
"The Veblen house must've been a showplace. The site overlooks a stretch of the Iowa River downstream (south) of a bight and about a third to a half a mile north of the center of campus."
Most of what we know about Oswald's childhood home comes from the newspaper columns of historian Irving Weber. By Weber's description, the house had a career of its own, hosting a progression of owners following the departure of the Veblens from Iowa City in 1906.

Weber writes: 
This had been the lovely La Place Bostwick home, and the tea room was called Wisteria because of the beautiful wisteria flowers, droopy clusters of showy, purple blooms on the front of the house. Interestingly, the house, located at the top of the long Dubuque Street hill, had been known as "The House of Mystery" (1908-1918) when Bostwick lived there and invested $25,000 for construction of the 40-by-60-foot laboratory building in back to artificially produce pearls, using clams. Two thousand clams were dredged from the Iowa River, just below the Coralville Dam, and were implanted with a tiny pellet of clam shell (as an irritant to start the pearl). Iowa River water was constantly pumped over the clams in the laboratory tank, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In four years, Bostwick reaped his first harvest of pearls--round, of good quality, weighing 10 grams. 
The "House of Mystery" has echoes of H.G. Wells' novels published only a decade prior, like The Invisible Man, in which a man secretly manipulates nature in a way no one else had ever imagined.

From 1925-26, while Elizabeth Veblen would have been hosting teas in Princeton and growing wisteria in her garden, Oswald's childhood home in Iowa City was busy being one of several Tea Houses in Iowa City operated by women during the Prohibition era. Soon thereafter the house was displaced by the Sigma Chi fraternity and reportedly moved in 1928 to another location, as yet unknown.

Another building that may have had a big effect on Oswald was the Grammar School, an impressive structure built in 1893 at the northeast corner of Van Buren and Jefferson streets. Such edifices must have loomed large in the predominantly rural landscape of Iowa, and surely made an impression on a young Veblen.

Oswald would likely have been a student there only a year before moving on to the university at the tender age of 14, but the flush of new facilities he experienced just before leaving high school may have influenced his campaigns later in life to secure good facilities for Princeton's math department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

For his college education, Oswald looked no further than the State University of Iowa, where his father Andrew was a professor with a long beard and a reputation for high standards.

Deane Montgomery, a former faculty member at the IAS and close friend of Veblen's, offered a few insights about those Iowa City college days in Veblen's obituary for the American Mathematical Society: "As a student he won a prize in mathematics and another in sharpshooting. During these early years he took a trip by boat down the Iowa and Mississippi rivers and he often spoke of this trip with pleasure."

Additional research that I have yet to write up suggests that loss--of buildings and landscape--may also have made a big impression on Veblen in his early days. There was the ancestral Veblen land in Norway lost two generations earlier, reportedly to unscrupulous lawyers, but Oswald himself appears to have directly witnessed two great losses in his youth. One was the fire that consumed the university library--a much loved structure with many irreplaceable books. Another was the university green, an area of open space on campus that was progressively lost to buildings for lack of foresight by leaders who had failed to acquire more land early on to accommodate the university's future growth. 

Of all these elements--family tradition, the great outdoors and great indoors, precocious achievement, tragic loss and steady gain--Oswald Veblen was made. 

Thanks to the Iowa City Library and the State Historical Society for assistance in this research.