Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Humanity Behind Science -- Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies

One role the Veblen House could play in a town so filled with vaunted institutions of higher learning is to make scientists better known as people. They tend to be presented in the media as remote figures stripped of personality, speaking about weighty subjects from their domain of rationality. As civilization has increasingly veered towards self-destruction, first with the nuclear arms race and now with a headlong radicalizing of the climate, scientists are primarily seen in the role of sounding the alarm. Caring people in a careless world, they are cast in the predictable, sober role of expressing concern while the rest of humanity goes its merry, scary way. Having grown up among scientists, I was able to see them as people who brought incredible perseverance, creativity, joy and humor to their study of the nature of things. 

One piece of recent writing that captures that side of science was Siobhan Roberts' portrait of Belgian mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, who in 2004 became Princeton University's first female full professor of mathematics. In her career, first in Belgium, then in the U.S., she has developed mathematical tools that have helped make possible the visual feast of the digital age, and she has even shown how artificial intelligence could be used to conserve and restore iconic artworks.

Entitled "The Godmother of the Digital Image," the article gives a portrait of Daubechies as optimistic, generous, creative, and fun-loving. 

The optimism perhaps comes from being able to solve problems others cannot:

"She revels in finding meaningful and practical problems — and solutions — where other mathematicians assume there are none."

And there's generosity in the way she uses this capacity to help her students:  

“I called her the deus ex machina adviser,” says Cynthia Rudin, a Duke computer scientist who is one of her former Ph.D. students. “When you’re in the depths of despair, your project has crashed and burned and you have almost proven that what you’re trying to do is impossible, Ingrid comes along and pulls you out of the pit of doom, and you can keep going.”

A mathematician can more easily think, and act, outside the box. How many people do you know who would throw a big shindig on their 64th birthday rather than their 65th, because 64 is a more compelling number, being a power of 2? 

"Daubechies booked a venue, a caterer, a troupe of majorette dancers known for farce — and then at the party made a surprise appearance in the baton-twirling cancan line, disguised in makeup and a tutu."

Along with her periodic "cathartic weeding in her garden," one of Daubechies' mottos, “Math can help! As always!”, reminds me of a letter about Oswald Veblen from 1992 in Princeton's Town Topics newspaper:

He and his friends spent Sunday afternoons clearing the poison ivy from the bank of the canal. He advocated washing vigorously with yellow soap after this. "You bet! "as he was prone to say. - ELIZABETH G MENZIES 926 Kingston Road

The letter writer, Elizabeth G. Menzies, turns out to have been the first female official photographer for Princeton University, who made a name for herself with a photo of Albert Einstein that appeared in a 1939 issue of Scientific American. 

Roberts' article also delves into Daubechies' efforts to help other women overcome institutional bias and gain deserved prominence in the field of mathematics. Veblen took on this role in the 1930s, helping the great mathematician Emmy Noether get positions at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study. 

While it's easy to see mathematics as intimidatingly complex, it is not uncommon among mathematicians of Daubechies' caliber to find in their work an underlying elegance and beauty. Describing how she found a practical application for wavelets without sacrificing the beauty of the original concept, she said,

“It is something that mathematicians often take for granted, that a mathematical framework can be really elegant and beautiful, but that in order to use it in a true application, you have to mutilate it: Well, they shrug, That’s life — applied mathematics is always a bit dirty. I didn’t agree with this point of view.”

Thanks to a gifted writer like Siobhan Roberts, people can begin to see how much humanity and passion a scientist can bring to her work.

Other posts about great women in math and science:

2017: A Memorable Year for Women Mathematicians

Vera Rubin: The Courage of Her Curiosity

Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Einstein's Begonia

A very nice little horticultural adventure began for me this past winter when I received a surprise email with an inquiring title: "Einstein's begonia?" The email was from my friend Kim Dorman who works at the Princeton Public Library. It was part flattery, part mystery, part challenge, like the beginning of a Mission Impossible episode. "Of all the people I know," it began, "you would be the most likely to have an answer to this question." Kim's sister's godmother was seeking a descendent of Einstein's begonia, and had also put word out to the Mercer County master gardeners and both garden clubs in Princeton.

A google search yielded an engaging and informative article by "Jeni", a Williams and Mary student at the time. She tells the story of Newton's apple tree, which still exists, and Einstein's begonia, which also lives on thanks to a proliferation of cuttings that took place after Einstein passed. According to Jeni, "Cuttings from the begonias raised by Einstein had been given as gifts before, mainly to physics or mathematics faculty at Princeton University or at the Institute for Advanced Study, but now they are also being circulated among a group residing in Princeton outside of the faculty."

A photo in the post showed a begonia owned by Jeni's grandparents, one of whom I happened to have served with on the Princeton Environmental Commission some years back. I contacted her, and she gladly shared cuttings of the begonia, describing them as "prolific." And so it is that Einstein's begonia traveled a multi-generational pathway to a new owner. 

Vicki's gift of cuttings was generous in number, and being an intrigued middleman, I kept a couple to see if I could get them to root. Online instructions suggested using a narrow container that could be filled with a minimum of water, the better to concentrate rooting compounds the plant naturally exudes. I chose a narrow glass, stuck the stems in, and waited. Weeks went by with no apparent action on the plants' part. The danger was that the stems would begin to rot. If you think about it, all a root has to do is lose one "o" and it turns into rot. The situation was clearly precarious, and I was worried not only for my own non root-budding begonias but also those I had passed along to Marianne, Kim's sister's godmother. As a precaution, I put one in perlite, to see if it would root that way.

It turned out that time brought roots rather than rot, regardless of the medium. I potted them up, kept them well lit but out of direct sun, and then one day, I noticed a flower emerging. Just a few leaves, and already a flower! I would have been impressed if the flower stayed that size, but instead what looked like one flower began to grow into many, 

until it had become a lovely spread. Clearly, Einstein was onto something. I like to think that this begonia's opulence and long-lasting blooms are reflective of Einstein's generosity of spirit, as well as the abundance of hair he grew in later years.

Another post that came up in an internet search, "Albert Einstein and Plants," offers some more background and claims, perhaps half correctly, that Einstein's begonia is "a Begonia ‘Lucerna‘; apparently a hybrid of Begonia teuscheri and Begonia coccinea."

A little more digging reveals that this plant is as international as Einstein himself. 

The Angel Wing Begonia, named for the shape of its leaves, was created by Eva Kenworthy Gray in 1926 when she hybridized a begonia from Lucerne, Switzerland and one from Brazil. Born in Missouri in 1863, Eva received a university education in an era when that was rare. It's not clear whether she went to University of Missouri, which began admitting women on a very limited basis in 1868, or perhaps the University of Iowa, Oswald Veblen's alma mater, which was coeducational from the get go in 1848. In any case, her considerable contributions to horticulture and begonias in particular happened after she became an immigrant of sorts, moving from the midwest to California, where she became hooked on begonias in 1920, after being given a couple cuttings. 

This is a recurring theme, in my life and in the lives of many people I know--the stimulus and serendipity of intranational migration, where skills and values learned in one place find new application and relevance when transported to another region of the country. Some of the values and motivations that made Oswald Veblen so impactful in Princeton can be traced not only to a youth spent in the midwest but extend back, as described in George Dyson's book Turings Cathedral, to the circumstances and culture his grandparents experienced in Norway. 

For info on the Angel-wing Begonia and its care and feeding, the Chicago Botanic Garden offers a lovely account. The plaster cast of Einstein's face in the first photo of this post, by the way, was given to us by Lavonne Heydel, who is a volunteer gardener at Drumthwacket, Morven, and most recently at Herrontown Woods. It had been part of an "Einstein garden" she and her offspring had for awhile. For the meantime, the plaster likeness now has a new home in a different sort of Einstein garden, among the begonias on my windowsill.

Friday, July 9, 2021

A Chance Learning of the Barden Gazebo's History at 145 Ewing Street

By chance, we have learned who built the gazebo that we moved to the Herrontown Woods Barden from 145 Ewing Street in Princeton last year. Though the gazebo, unlike Veblen House and Cottage, is a new addition to Herrontown Woods, it brings along with it some history that turns out to have some connections to the Veblens, the genesis of the preserve, great writers, the founding of Princeton University, and some prize-winning giant tomatoes. 

I was pulling out of my driveway to head to Herrontown Woods earlier this month when I happened to see a man and his son standing next to the 145 Ewing Street house across the street, photographing the Bicentennial plaque affixed to the building. The house dates back to 1755, preceding Nassau Hall by a year, so existed when the country was born. 

Curiosity can lead to discovery, and so I walked over and said hello. Turned out the man's mother had owned the house. His name is Robert Field, and his mother, Alma Redding Field, had paid two men to build the gazebo a few years after buying the house from writer Caroline Gordon in 1978. Alma also remodeled the kitchen, built raised beds, planted roses, and added a "peeing boy" fountain framed by a rock wall. Alma's big raised beds would later grow a tomato that shared first place in the "Prize Princeton Tomato Contest", with a tomato weighing in at two pounds, eight ounces and a circumference of 18 inches.

Perhaps her inspiration for gardening greatness had been a neighbor just up the street at 178 Ewing, Leopauldine (Pauldi) Hutter, who had won an informal Green Thumb award from Town Topics in 1985 for her softball-sized tomatoes. Pauldi, an immigrant from Austria who was described by the Town Topics as a "cook and gardener extraordinaire and a warm-hearted, hard-working person," had "tended Mrs Oswald Veblen from the time her mathematician husband died in 1960 to her own death in 1973." 

By the time I moved in across the street in 2004, 145 Ewing had been bought by Anne Margaret Daniel, who revered the history but at some point moved out of town and would put the house up for sale between tenants. The house was finally bought two years ago, and now, 40 years after Alma transformed the backyard, the property is undergoing another transformation. To many people's surprise, the 1976 Bicentennial plaque on the front of the house did not mean the house was protected. It took an initiative by some of us neighbors to get the new owner and the town to work out a way to preserve the house. The raised beds are gone, but fortunately the 1755 house will be saved, and the new owner allowed us to save and repurpose the gazebo and shed by moving them out to Herrontown Woods.

I invited Robert and his son to come see his mother's gazebo at the Barden (short for Botanical Art Garden). They followed me out to Herrontown Woods, and so enjoyed the location and the company of the volunteers working there that they decided to extend their visit to Princeton an extra day.

The Redding name may sound familiar to many in Princeton. Robert's mother Alma was daughter of Joseph Redding of Redding & Sons Plumbing & Heating. Redding Terrace on Mt. Lucas Rd was named in his honor, after a life of public service, having served on borough council and many boards. A little research on the "Papers of Princeton" site revealed that Alma's family roots in Princeton date back to 1842. Like her father, she was very active in the community, serving on the Princeton Historical Society board for 15 years. Soon after buying the 145 Ewing St house, she joined the Princeton planning board, replacing Wendy Benchley, whom I would serve with on the Environmental Commission some 25 years later. 

In 1996, Alma was featured in an article in Town Topics, about her 94 page pamphlet "The Two Princetons: On the Record." Around the time she moved into 145 Ewing, she began a years-long project going through borough council minutes dating back to 1813, many of them written on cotton paper until wood pulp paper came into use in 1840. 

The article also describes the house. 
"her Ewing Street home is one of the oldest in Princeton, a house built in 1755 for Job Stockton... Sitting In her living room, a cavernous fireplace original to the house on one wall, Mrs. Field notes that this was Job Stockton's first house."He had a tannery, which needs water, and there are brooks nearby." Mr. Stockton went on to build Bainbrldge House, now the home of the Historical Society. The floor of the living room is the original wide-plank, honey-colored pine. In a corner is a Revolutionary War cannonball which Mrs. Field found under a pear tree in her yard. A part of the original front door was replaced in the 18th century after Job Stockton applied to a reparations commission for funds to repair two door panels destroyed during the Revolutionary War." 
The reference to a tannery and the need for water is interesting. You can see the brooks in this old map of Princeton. The blue line angling to the right is Harry's Brook, which drains downtown and eastern Princeton before flowing into Carnegie Lake over towards Kingston, and if you look closely at the map, you'll see a thin blue line of a tributary heading up and to the left. It ends just to the right of the "T", in the backyard of 145 Ewing Street. That, along with references to two giant willow trees that used to grow in the backyard, suggest that there was a spring there. 

Another feature of this old map will interest Princetonians used to driving up Harrison Street to the shopping center. At the bottom of the map is Nassau Street. Harrison Street heads up and then takes a sharp left, turning into Ewing Street just before that little tributary. 145 Ewing is at that corner, and the tributary blocked Harrison Street from going further until the early 1950s when the Princeton Shopping Center was built. Since I live across Harrison Street from 145 Ewing, part of that tributary once flowed through my backyard. In heavy rains, it still does, though most of the tributary is now underground, keeping the neighbors' sump pumps busy.

It's not entirely coincidence that the creation of Herrontown Woods in 1957 followed closely the building of the Princeton Shopping Center. The Veblens' donation of Princeton's first nature preserve was their response to the rapid conversion of farms on the east side of Princeton into suburban development. The loss of the rural landscape made clear to them the need for people to have a place to get away from cars and take a walk. 

I got some help from several sources in town about the history of 145 Ewing. Thanks in particular goes to the Historical Society of Princeton, and the Mudd Library had some useful information as well. Job Stockton bought the land from the Hornor family, for which a nearby street is named. In 1756, a year after the Ewing Street house was built, John Hornor along with Richard Stockton and two others contributed the land and funds to make possible the move of the college from Newark to Princeton. Nassau Hall was completed that year. 

Some internet sources claim that Thomas Jefferson slept in the 145 Ewing St house the night of November 4, 1783, during a meeting of the Continental Congress, but no evidence of this could be found in the historical records.

An addition to the house was built in the first half of the 19th century, perhaps by Arthur Browne, who owned it as of 1852. According to Amelia Miller McGinnis, who grew up in the house after the Miller family purchased it in 1918, the house had been owned by James Brown and included 18 acres. 
"It was called a truck farm. My dad ran that truck farm and sold vegetables. We even went over in the town and peddled vegetables. There were several English walnut trees, and anything you could lay your hands on to make money there in that place.”

Though Thomas Jefferson apparently did not stay overnight, there is evidence that the poet Robert Lowell and other famous writers visited the house. Novelist Caroline Gordon owned the house from 1956 to 1978. During her marriage to another well-known author, Allen Tate, from 1925 to 1959, their guests according to wikipedia

"included some of the best-known writers of their time, including Robert Lowell, who famously camped on their lawn in a tent one summer, absorbing everything he could from his mentor, Allen Tate, while enjoying the southern cooking and constant social life provided by Caroline Gordon. Other visitors were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, and Ford Madox Ford, the author whom Gordon considered her mentor."

Though wikipedia states that Gordon had a house on Nassau Street called "Benbrackets," it more usefully and hopefully accurately states that 

Gordon maintained her home at Princeton until 1973, teaching and writing; works of this time include The Glory of Hera (1972). 
Gordon and her husband had moved to Princeton--after living most of their lives in the southeast--in order to be closer to their daughter, Nancy Tate, who married a NJ psychiatrist, Percy Wood.

Gordon's correspondence with Flannery O'Connor included reference to two giant willow trees in her backyard. The house next to mine, built directly in the path of where the little tributary once flowed, is said to have had a massive willow tree in the front yard. It was gone by the time we arrived, but the hole is still there. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

On Juneteenth, A Post From the Past

Just two days ago, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. The title suggests that we can all feel more free because of Juneteenth. Though it primarily commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, it's also been described as serving "as a moment to honor and celebrate black excellence." I can relate to that, as a jazz musician, having spent long and pleasurable hours listening to and transcribing the solos of many of the greats: Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Sonny Rollins. 

Now, immersed in the history and the restorational logistics of Veblen House, what connection can be found between African American excellence and the Veblens, whose ancestry is Norwegian and English? 

The question sends us back to the archives for a 2017 post entitled "Math Writ Large in Hidden Figures." It's a story of surprising connections that begins like this: 

"A friend likes to say that "all roads lead to Veblen House". On a hunch, I traced the mathematical road leading back from Katherine G. Johnson, one of three extraordinary black women mathematicians in the movie Hidden Figures, and sure enough, it led back in multiple ways to Oswald Veblen."

The rest of the story is at this link. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

What Einstein, Veblen, and Cicadas Have in Common

In this collage of Princeton Alumni magazines, Oswald Veblen finds himself framed by two miraculous companions: Albert Einstein and the Miracicada that currently has Princeton all abuzz. What do they have in common other than being miraculous? They have both spent time at Herrontown Woods. Veblen and Einstein were the first two professors at the Institute for Advanced Study, and remained good friends. The Miracicadas were singing in 1936 when Veblen bought what we now call the Veblen Cottage--an 1875 farmstead that became Veblen's study, often visited by Einstein and other friends. That purchase, which later became the core of Herrontown Woods, can be considered a starting point for the Princeton open space movement. By that measure, the movement to preserve open space reached five cicada generations old this year. Though the cicadas only come out of the ground once every 17 years, Veblen may have considered them friends as well, and as a mathematician surely took an interest in the primeness of their periodicity.

Update: In a letter to the Princeton Alumni Magazine about this, I noted that the author of the PAW's article on cicadas, Elyse Graham, was also the author of the PAW's past articles about Veblen, Adventures in Fine Hall and The Power of Small Numbers.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

May Veblen and the Dogwood Garden Club

It being May, which happened to be Elizabeth "May" Veblen's nickname, and since May is prelude to June, when we will celebrate not only Oswald's birthday on the 24th but also May's 140th birthday on the 22nd, it's as good a time as any to search for clues as to who she was. 

One of the things May did was garden. She grew up in Yorkshire, England, and brought the tradition of English gardening with her, first to be practiced at their home on Battle Road, and then more extensively after they moved to Herrontown Woods in the 1940s. As New Jersey's agricultural era receded, theirs would have been a younger landscape, of fields transitioning into forest, when there were few deer to limit what could be grown among the boulders and split rail fencing that served as foils for the flowers. 

An important part of her life appears to have been the Dogwood Garden Club, which she and others founded in 1957, the same year the Veblens donated Herrontown Woods as Mercer County's first nature preserve. If Oswald's health was declining at that point, along with the travel demands of his international career, more time at home may have caused the Veblens to focus more on the grounds around them. This photo is one of the many we believe were taken by Oswald, as he documented their life in such a beautiful, peaceful place.

A portrait of the club back in May's day can be found in the April 20, 1967 edition of Town Topics, back when women still remained hidden behind their husbands' first and last names. Some interesting tidbits relevant to Herrontown Woods were Elizabeth's honorary lifetime membership in the club, the connection between the club and the citizen's committee that was overseeing the Woods, and the group's tending to the "creekside trail"--probably what is now called the yellow trail--where they labeled the plants--a tradition recently revived in the preserve's Botanical Art Garden. 

Back then, the club was popular enough that it had to limit its membership to 30, and was fostering an associated group of junior high girls named the Princeton Tiger Lilies. Counting the stereotype of garden club ladies who "just sit around and drink tea, they pointed to the therapeutic power of plants in their outreach work. 


By Dogwood Club. Mrs. Charles G. Whinfrey of Mt. Lucas Road, one of the 14 original members of the Dogwood Garden Club, has been made an honorary lifetime member this month. Mrs. Whinfrey has been an active member of the club since its founding in November 1957. The first president, Mrs. Allen Norris is also an honorary member, as is Mrs. Oswald Veblen who with her late husband, Professor Veblen, gave the tract now known as Herrontown Woods to Mercer County. The Dogwood Garden Club is small, limited to 30 active members and 10 associates “so that we can meet in each other's living rooms," according to Mrs. Wesley H. Owens, president.

“The project we are proudest of is the landscaping of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building on North Harrison Street,” she adds. The work won a $lOO prize in the Conservation and Investment for the Future section of the Civic Beautification Project cosponsored by the Garden Club of New Jersey and Sears. The money was promptly spent to expand the original planting.

Although not all garden clubs have junior groups, the Dogwood Club has sponsored the Princeton Tiger Lilies for a number of years. Limited to 10 girls of junior high school age, the young members "cover just about everything in horticulture and flower arranging," Mrs. Owens says.

The club maintains "Brookside Trail*' in Herrontown Woods, and has identified and labeled the trees and shrubs along the way. "Professor I Veblen was particularly interested in saving the trees on this tract. It is a beautiful area. I wish more people knew about it." Two club members are on the County Park Commission’s citizens’ committee that oversees the Woods.

Last year the club planted a red oak on Arbor Day in the open triangle of land between Route 206 and Mt. Lucas Road, beyond the Princeton Township Garage. This was part of the federated clubs "Project Heart,*’ and was dedicated as a living tribute to all sons and daughters from this community serving in the armed forces.

Members have the same varied interests to be found in all of the clubs. There are specialists in day lilies, iris, roses, bulbs and flowers suitable for drying. A number, Mrs. Owens among them, are interested in the cultivation of wild flowers. Twice a year members hold a plant exchange, and they have sponsored flower shows in 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1963.

Officers this year include Mrs. John H. Houghton, first vice-president; Mrs. Robert Engeiorecht. second vice president; Mrs. Gerald Lockyer, recording secretary; Mrs. I William H. Aiken, corresponding secretary, and Mrs. Donald Thiel, treasurer.

"I believe that a lot of people think that garden club ladies just sit around and drink tea." Mrs. Owens comments. “This isn’t so. There’s a great deal of garden therapy work done at the Army Hospitals and state institutions under the New Jersey Garden Club’s state chairman. The purpose of the therapy program is to achieve human conservation through the common bond of flowers--from seed to flower show.

"We have found it so rewarding, even the little bouquets we do for Walson Army Hospital at Ft. Dix. The boys are so delighted. It is a very touching thing how much they appreciate your time."

Mrs. Charles G. Whinfrey
The Dogwood Garden Club helped restore Elizabeth's gardens at Veblen House after she died in 1974. In 1976, they planted bicentennial dogwood trees all around the perimeter of Princeton Battlefield's north lawn, many of which still bloom today. Maybe that red oak still grows down near town hall. Here's an article about their work in 2006, and a 2013 article described them:
With a mission “to stimulate an interest in gardening, encourage the conservation of plant and wildlife, and take part in community gardening projects,” the Dogwood Garden Club of Princeton has chosen to nurture Horticulture students at Mercer County Community College for decades.

This consistently attractive planting near the Princeton Recreation Dept. Building had a sign saying it was taken care of by the Dogwood Garden Club. 

The group has been less active in recent years, and according to a past president, it's not clear if they will regroup after the pandemic. If not, they will have had a good run of 64 years after their inception back in Elizabeth's day. 

Elizabeth with a book of flowers.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Veblens' Oppenheimer Paintings

There were at least two Oppenheimers in Oswald Veblen's life. One was the well known physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, who became director of the IAS after WWII. The other is the painter Charles Oppenheimer, who painted at least two of the paintings that hung in the Veblens' living room. Though most of this post is about Charles, there will later come reason to believe that Robert may have left behind a painting or two.
We've been fortunate to track down photos of the interior of the Veblen House from when the Veblens were living there. Oswald took an interest in photography later in his life. Considering that the Veblens' will called for his photos and equipment to become part of a museum at the house, this appears to have been a conscious effort on his part to document their life, the house, and garden.

Given that Oswald was the one behind the camera, this reflection in the painting in the photo above is about as close as we're likely to get to a photograph of him at Veblen House. 

The painting itself was most likely painted by Charles Oppenheimer, a British painter and contemporary of the Veblens. My curiosity about the painting for years had gone no further than that, but a graphic artist and friend of our Veblen House project was moved to track down the subject of the painting. 

Given Alison's art background and skills at delving into the richness of the web, it wasn't long before she came up with the setting: the Piazza delle Erbe, a square in Verona, in northern Italy. This fits with a description of Oppenheimer's time in Italy:
While in Italy Oppenheimer painted the architecture of Florence, Verona and Venice, capturing the atmosphere of these old Italian cities.

One internet source describes Oppenheimer's trip to northern Italy in 1912, which may have been when this painting was made. 

Veblen's photo of another corner of the living room shows another painting on the wall. 
It shows what appears to be a tree overhanging a river, not unlike some landscapes Oppenheimer painted near his home in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, 

like this one. 

There are a couple echoes from Oswald Veblen's life in Oppenheimer's life and paintings. Veblen grew up overlooking the Iowa River, which meanders through Iowa City. And in WW II the army conducted some of its military exercises near Kirkcudbright. Veblen played important roles in both world wars, leading groups of mathematicians and physicists to improve the accuracy of artillery. Like Veblen, Oppenheimer was drawn to both the natural and the built environment. 

There was another painting in the Veblens' living room that we have yet to find a photo of. It hung above the fireplace. All we know of it thus far is a description given by Bob Wells, who rented the Veblen House from about 1975 to 1998, and raised his family there. 

Bob described the painting as a desert, with scrub rather than cacti, with a view from a rise out across a broad valley, with mountains in the distance. Bob would sit there in the evening and gaze at that painting and let his imagination go. He had always believed it to have been painted by Robert Oppenheimer of the IAS, during his time at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and was surprised by my suggestion that it was painted instead by Charles Oppenheimer. Bob mentioned a neighbor of his, two doors up, who is a very talented painter, and might be able to recreate the painting if we could find an image. 

It seems unlikely that Charles Oppenheimer would have had occasion to paint a desert scene. Robert Oppenheimer's mother was a painter, and owned works by Picasso and van Gogh. It's possible Robert picked up some painting skills along the way.

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.