Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Origins of the Veblen House's Eastern European Elements

 Over the years, I've shown the Veblen House to quite a few architects and carpenters. All have commented on its unique style. None have seen anything like it. One recently said it reminded him stylistically of wooden houses built in eastern Europe. I usually explain its uniqueness by telling the fourth hand story that a Russian cabinet maker is said to have spent two years working on the house.

But who would have thought to bring a Russian cabinet maker to the States to labor long on refinements for this house in the woods on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. Not Veblen, it turns out, but one Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart, who originally brought this prefab house to Princeton and lived in it with his family before selling to the Veblens. For six years since discovering the house and working to save it, I felt no curiosity about the house's original owner. Stuart remained a footnote, a warmup act for the main draw.
 The additive power of so many comments by professionals about the house's uniqueness finally prompted me to ask who was that "masked man" with the long name, who brought house and family to live briefly in Princeton, sold to the Veblens, then vanished. From the self-descriptions below, found only after searching far and wide (via google), Whiton-Stuart turns out to share many traits with Veblen. He was a world traveler, a fine marksman, with a strong interest in mathematics. He came from a prosperous family, thrived in cultural centers, took an interest in fine buildings, but also was drawn to the outdoors.

Harvard University published reports every five years on what its graduates were doing. Though JP Whiton-Stuart left Harvard after his first year, he continued to be considered a member of the class of 1898, and fortunately sent in a couple reports. Both reports predate his family's move to Princeton.

Harvard Class of 1898, 2nd Report (1908)

"After leaving Harvard I travelled all over the Continent and through the Far East, nearly always with a tutor or professor, and am one of the very few having crossed over- land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years. Between these travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses in mathematics. I also hunted as an avocation throughout the West, and won many important events pigeon shooting around New York. I then became associated with Douglas Robinson in real estate, and am now in business for myself as a specialist in selling large private residences."

Harvard Class of 1898, 3rd Report (1913)

"I left Harvard on account of illness, and travelled when not in or preparing for Williams and Cambridge, England. I saw Russia, Armenia, all of Europe, the Far East three times, the Holy Land, Greece and was one of few that crossed Persia to the Gulf, also West and Africa. I was a real estate specialist for ten years in New York, and am still president of the J.P. Whiton-Stuart Company, New York, where I saved enough to buy a herd of cattle in Arizona. I now live on a horse's back, riding over one hundred square miles of cattle range I rent from the United States government in the largest forest in the United States. Member: Union Club of New York, Yavapai Club of Prescott, Ariz."

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