Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Before Veblen, there was J.P.W. Stuart

Who was J.P.W. Stuart, and why does it matter? Well, the Veblen House was not built by the Veblens, but was originally brought to Princeton in pieces around 1920, by a man named Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart. Some reports say it was moved from Morristown, NJ, others mention New York. When I told a builder friend that the original owner was a Stuart, he said that there was a prominent New York City family by that name. Some preliminary internet research suggests that Stuart was indeed a man of means, with prominent friends and interesting pursuits.

Though the research is just getting underway, it's likely that J.P.W. Stuart was born into a prominent NY family, and may well have married into another. In 1905 (the year Oswald Veblen was hired by Princeton University), Stuart married Mary M. Ogden, daughter of John Ogden. Mary's wedding attire is described in detail in a NY Times article that also mentions what Mrs. Vanderbilt was wearing, at a different wedding that weekend. The Ogden name appears to date back to the Pilgrims.

When one account gave Stuart's father's name as Robert, there was the tantalizing possibility that his father was Robert L. Stuart, who made his fortune in the sugar business, and who with his wife and brother were deeply involved in philanthropy, including large donations to Princeton Seminary and Princeton College. There's a Stuart Hall over on Alexander Street. They collected Hudson River School art, and Robert L. was president of the NY Museum of Natural History for some years. But our Stuart takes his name from Robert Watson Stuart, whose background is as yet unclear.

In 1908, Jesse and Mary had a daughter, Sylvia Jean, whose christening was attended by some prominent-sounding members of NY society. In 1964, Sylvia pops up as Sylvia Olcott, living in Tucson, AZ.

Perhaps it would be asking too much for the poet Ogden Nash (Ogden was his middle name) to be related to both Mary Ogden and the brilliant mathematician John Nash, Jr, who came to Princeton when Veblen was still around. On the other hand, the Mrs. Augustus Juilliard mentioned as having attended the christening of Mary and Jesse's daughter may well be the wife of the founder of the Juilliard School of Music.

Other articles from that time document a J.P.W. Stuart who was an excellent marksman. He channeled his talent into winning pigeon shooting contests. If that was our J.P.W., then the dovecote shown as standing near the Veblen House in the 1950s (on the right in this photo) may date back to Stuart's time. It also suggests that the transfer of ownership of the house from Stuart to Veblen is symbolic of the shift in views of wildlife over the course of the 20th century, as birds became something to watch rather than to shoot.

Veblen excelled at both math and marksmanship while growing up in Iowa. He combined these two talents by leading U.S. efforts to improve the accuracy of artillery during the world wars.

All in all, this preliminary foray into the story of Stuarts suggests yet another rich vein of history awaits appreciation out at Herrontown Wood.

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