Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: A Memorable Year for Women Mathematicians

Before the cascading events of this fall put the national focus on women in the workplace, it was already a significant year for appreciating women and their contributions to mathematics.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson
The movie Hidden Figures, released just days before 2017 began, tells of the critical role three black female mathematicians played in the U.S. space program. A hunch and some research uncovered a Veblen connection to that wonderful story.

This hidden role of women has played out repeatedly in the history of mathematics and computers. It's commonly said that though early computing machines were largely designed by men, it was the women who figured out how to actually run them. Women with keen mathematical ability had already proved themselves as the first computers, whether for NASA or for Veblen's ballistics work for the U.S. military during the World Wars. A little research yielded a story from my little home town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, home of Yerkes Observatory. According to Wikipedia, Chandreskhar, a colleague of my father's and a future Nobel Prize winner, in the 1940s
"had used top performing female high school students from Williams Bay, Lake Geneva, Elkhorn and Burlington, Wisconsin to calculate immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand, and found that their abilities and vigilance were unparalleled."

Cathleen Synge Morawetz
There's also a Veblen connection to another great female mathematician, Cathleen Synge Morawetz, who died this past August. A writeup on the American Mathematical Society website tells of her distinguished career, including many firsts for a female mathematician. At age 90, she and her husband made a donation to significantly increase funding for the Veblen Prize in geometry, out of gratitude for a kindness Oswald showed to her father a long time ago. The touching story is taken from an AMS article.
"This long association with the AMS played a part in her decision, in celebration of her 90th birthday last year, to make a major donation to the Society. The gift from her and her husband, Herbert Morawetz, significantly increased the size of the long-underfunded Oswald Veblen Prize Fund, bringing it on a par with other AMS prize funds. Veblen was a good friend of Morawetz’s father, John Lighton Synge. How this friendship began is recounted in Synge’s article “For the 100th birthday of the American Mathematical Society”, which appeared in A Century of Mathematics in America: Part 1, edited by Peter Duren (AMS, 1988). The article is a written version of a talk Synge gave at the AMS Centennial Celebration in 1988. 
In the article, he recalls an AMS meeting he attended in December 1921 in Toronto. He had come to Toronto from Dublin the year before and found few colleagues with mathematical interests similar to his own. His encounter with Veblen at that AMS meeting and the kindness and consideration Veblen showed were important to Synge as he made his way in mathematics in a new land. At the time Synge wrote the article, he was 91 years old, the same age his daughter is now. One hears in his article an echo of the lively intellect and warmth of Cathleen Synge Morawetz. For those qualities and for her many contributions to mathematics and to the profession, she has evoked great fondness in the mathematical community."
After getting contact info from friend and distinguished mathematician Joe Kohn, I tried to reach out to her this past March to let her know about our initiative to save the Veblen House, but was unable to reach her. A video interview of her, late in life, tells of how her mentor at NYU, Richard Courant, had also been a supporter of Emmy Noether (see below) in Goettingen, how becoming pregnant actually hastened her getting a PhD, and how she was for a time a trustee at Princeton University. It appears that Veblen assisted not only Moravetz's father, but also played a quiet role in laying the groundwork for her own career. A book named "Hilbert-Courant", by Constance Reid, describes Veblen's role in encouraging Courant to take a position at New York University in 1933.

Maryam Mirzakhani
2017 also saw the loss at age 40 of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. She was the first and thus far only female mathematician to win the Fields Medal. Born in Iran, her brief but brilliant career as a professor began at Princeton before moving to Stanford.

Marina Ratner
She died this past July, after defying conventional expectations of a mathematician's trajectory by doing her best mathematical work in her later years, after turning 40.

Emmy Noether
Last but not least, and more appropriately first and most, Emmy Noether gained much deserved recognition in 2017 as part of a historical initiative at the Institute for Advanced Study entitled A Refuge for Scholars. Like Einstein, who called her one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, she was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Germany. It was Veblen who took the lead in finding her a position at Bryn Mawr and inviting her to be a Visitor at the IAS. Despite her talents being commensurate with male mathematicians of the time, or of all time, her career options were limited, as was her salary. She died in 1935 after complications from surgery. This poster about her has been on display at the IAS Fuld Hall.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Seeking Whitons in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery

Together, Veblen House and Cottage tell a story that extends from great wealth to hardscrabble farming. Though Oswald Veblen has been the central historic character, the house was built and first lived in by the Whiton-Stuarts, whose extraordinary wealth and history is becoming more apparent the deeper we dig. Veblen's grandfather was a pioneer farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Whiton-Stuart's grandfather made a fortune playing a big role in the early growth of railroads in the mid-1800s. A granduncle worked for Lincoln supervising the military railroad during the Civil War.

Internet research has been augmented by a few field trips. First, some friends, visiting Brooklin, Maine, tracked down the Veblens' summer cottage. More recently, we found the family burial grounds for the Whitons in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

Green-Wood Cemetery is no ordinary resting place. One of the first rural cemeteries in the U.S., it occupies some lovely high ground in Brooklyn, with vistas of the New York city skyline. Like Herrontown Woods, which was in part a reaction to the rapid displacement of rural landscape by post-WWII suburban growth in eastern Princeton, Green-Wood was a response to the rapid growth that was overcrowding NY's more traditional churchyard burial sites.

Hard to say how the dead feel about Green-Wood, but it's a very pleasant place for the living to visit. The entryway makes a statement of general grandeur. Green parrots found the gateway sufficiently impressive that they have fashioned a communal apartment complex high up in the main tower. These are not the native Carolina parakeets, which were hunted to extinction around the same time as the mighty passenger pigeon, but escaped pet monk parrots originally imported from Argentina.

Before Ohmsted designed Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, he may have taken inspiration from Green-Wood Cemetery, which in mid-19th century was "attracting 500,000 visitors a year, second only to Niagara Falls as the nation’s greatest tourist attraction."

Since 1838, it's been the prestigious place to be buried. Part bird sanctuary, part Revolutionary War battlefield--you can follow its curving, maze-like pathways

to people like Leonard Bernstein, who probably would have preferred to have been buried closer to the Steinway family several hillocks away.

The grave markers proclaim their names loudly as you pass by, prompting leaps of the imagination. Is Henry A. Hudson related to the famous Henry Hudson?

Is this the real McCoy? So much to research, so little time.

Fortunately, this visit had a clear mission: find the Whiton family, without which there would have been no Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart to bring the (Veblen) House to Princeton in the 1930s.

The Whitons are gathered around a central obelisk with names carved on each of its four sides.

Front and center is Augustus Sherrill Whiton, grandfather of Jesse. In 1838, as a newly trained civil engineer, he helped design the first branch of the Erie Railroad--the first railroad outlet to the west of New York--which would swing north up the Hudson, then west to Lake Erie. He later became superintendent of the Erie Railroad, and made a large fortune during over 40 years in the railroad business.

In 1843 Augustus was married to Caroline, daughter of Thomas Ward, the Ramapo ironmaster and landed proprietor.

Elizabeth Whiton, also on the obelisk, was their second child.

Jesse seems to have had quite a granddad on his father's side. The Whiton Family of America: The Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Whiton (1635), describes Augustus this way:
The following is taken from an obituary published in the Christian Intelligencer:

"The pastor of one of the New York City churches has written us in a recent letter, "Many a time in recent years as I have reviewed my own life and recalled those whose character has inspired me, the picture of Mr. Whiton has been recalled to my mind. His balance of judgement was so true, his sympathy so constant, that as I think of him over a space of almost a score of years his likeness is very near the ideal of Christian manhood."

One of Augustus' brothers, William Henry Whiton, also spent his life in the railroad business. He became son-in-law to the president of the Erie Railroad, and during the Civil War found himself essentially running the wartime railroad for Abraham Lincoln.

There was a steam engine named after WH Whiton that was photographed pulling a railroad car specially made for President Lincoln, and which would later carry Lincoln's casket on the long funeral procession back to Illinois.

Jesse's father was Augustus Ward Whiton, the third child of Caroline Ward and Augustus Sherrill Whiton. Augustus Ward Whiton married Jennie Paulmier, then tragically died a year or two later "at Augusta, GA from an illness contracted on their wedding trip to Europe." Augustus W. had graduated from Columbia University, and was part of a railroad supply firm. Their only child was Jesse, born in Jersey City, which became terminus for the Erie Railroad in 1853.

Jesse acquired his hyphenated last name, Whiton-Stuart, when his mother remarried.

There are other surnames in this cluster of gravestones around the obelisk--Little, Faulkner, Pendleton, Bell, Bouche, and Quiggle--but those await further exploring.

Jesse's mother Jennie is buried elsewhere in Green-Wood, next to the Stuart obelisk with her second husband, and Jesse strayed from his family at the end of his life, to be buried out in California.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mathematics and Memory Meet in Tucson, AZ

This post is prompted by a texted photo from a friend of mine, Carl Hildebrandt. It wasn't a casual selfie. He took it only after riding his bike all the way up a mountain outside Tucson, AZ to reach Kitt Peak Observatory, where there's a telescope named after my father.

Carl, too, has math and science flowing through his veins. His grandfather Theophil Henry Hildebrandt's career as a mathematician paralleled Veblen's in many ways. Hildebrandt arrived at University of Chicago for graduate work just as Veblen was leaving for Princeton, had the same advisor, E.H. Moore, then went on to chair the math department at University of Michigan from 1934-57, and serve as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1945-6. Carl's uncle Theodore spent 1947-8 working at Princeton with von Neumann, Goldstine, and Julian Bigelow on the IAS computer project.

This snippet from Century of Mathematics in America portrays the University of Chicago as the academic center of gravity for American mathematics in 1900, spawning the PhD's who would then go forth to lead the growth of mathematics at Princeton, Harvard, Michigan and other institutions in the 20th century.

Concurrent with this fertile production of many of mathematic's future leaders, Chicago also built Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, which in 1897 was far from city lights. Yerkes, where I lived while my father was an astronomer there, had many qualities similar to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study--an academic enclave surrounded by fields and woods on the outskirts of a small town. The observatory remained a center of cutting edge research until the second half of the 20th century, when more advanced telescopes sprouted in drier climes, such as Kitt Peak, AZ.

Tucson drew not only astronomers like my father, but also two of the Whiton-Stuarts--the family that built what would later be called Veblen House. They had already lived in Prescott, AZ, decades earlier, where Jesse spent his days on horseback herding cattle--a change of pace from running his high-end real estate firm in Manhattan. His wife, Mary (Marshall Ogden) Whiton-Stuart later moved back to Arizona to live in Tucson for the last 13 years of her life, as did her daughter, Silvia, for portions of that time.

Astronomy and the Whiton-Stuarts came together in the Nov. 16, 1964 issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen, which included Mary's obituary and, elsewhere on the same page, an announcement:
"To Speak At Dinner--Meet Dr. Gerard Kuiper, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, will speak Sunday at the annual Compact Day dinner meeting of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Arizona." 
Gerard Kuiper was a colleague of my father's at Yerkes, and Mary may well have been a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants. They might have met had she lived a little longer.

Thanks to Carl for prompting me to weave all these threads together.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Princeton's Veblen House, Marquand Park and Drumthwacket Connected?

A document has been found online by our Veblen House historian-in-residence that suggests a long-standing connection--whether it be political, social, economic, or all of the above--between the builder of Veblen House and some of the most influential families in Princeton's history. In December of 1876, 22 prominent citizens of New York wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress about one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. The presidency remained in doubt until the following March, rivaling our more recently disputed election in 2000. The letter appears to be high-minded and nonpartisan, though the resolution of the election three months later would have immense ramifications for race relations.

What's relevant to this post are three names on the list: J and J Stuart and Co, Henry G. Marquand, and Moses Taylor.

One of the "J"s in J and J Stuart is James Stuart--the step-grandfather of Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart, who brought what would later be called the Veblen House to Princeton in the early 1930s.

And might Henry G. Marquand have something to do with Marquand Park in Princeton? According to Roland Machold, who with his wife Pam helps oversee care of Marquand Park,
"Henry G. Marquand was the father of Alan Marquand, who purchased and named Guernsey Hall in 1885. Alan's wife, Eleanor, donated Marquand Park to Princeton Borough in 1953. Henry was a successful financier in New York City and served for many years as the head of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum until 1902, when he died. His portrait hangs in the University art museum, as does his wife’s, painted by John Singer Sargeant."
It would be interesting to explore whether the donation of Marquand Park, which the Veblens would have passed on their way to the Institute for Advanced Study, might have provided some inspiration for the Veblens to donate Herrontown Woods as a nature preserve four years later.

And might the Moses Taylor who co-signed the letter be related to Moses Taylor Pyne, whose Drumthwacket estate in Princeton would later become the official residence of the governor of New Jersey? Pyne was "one of Princeton University's greatest benefactors and its most influential trustee." Here's a paragraph from the wikipedia entry:
The son of Percy Rivington Pyne and Albertina Shelton Taylor, Pyne was born in New York City in 1855, and graduated from Princeton in 1877. Pyne inherited an enormous fortune from his maternal grandfather and namesake, Moses Taylor who was first president of the First National City Bank of New York and a stockholder in the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad.
If the grandfathers of Jesse Whiton-Stuart and Moses Taylor Pyne moved in the same social and financial circles in New York, then it seems far less coincidental that Jesse and his wife Mary would move to Princeton and build their house on a parcel adjacent to what once was the horse farm for Moses Taylor Pyne's daughter-in-law.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Themes from Veblen House Show Up in Children's Books

When the Veblen's donated their house to the public trust, they conceived of it becoming a museum and library. We hope to incorporate these elements into the house as part of its future use as a community gathering place for meetings, talks and performances. The library would ideally be a collection of books connected thematically to the Whiton-Stuart and Veblen families.

So it was that, amid the crowds of kids and parents exploring the sea of books and talking with the authors at the recent Princeton Children's Book Festival,  I sought out books with themes related to those who had built and lived at Veblen House.

Daniel Kirk's book, Rhino in the House, caught my eye. It tells the story of Anna Merz, who witnessed the plight of rhinos in Africa and decided to create a preserve where they would be safe from poaching. Our Veblen House historical research has uncovered a remarkable connection to these heroic efforts. The Whiton-Stuarts' grandson-in-law is Esmond Bradley Martin, who has devoted his life to saving rhinos and elephants in Africa and Asia. 

In Anna Merz's obituary, we learn that Esmond Martin was Merz's first contact in Africa as she became interested in rhinos.
Retiring to Kenya with her second husband in 1976, Merz learned from elephant and rhino conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin that rhinos were close to being poached to extinction throughout their range in both Africa and Asia. In 1982 Merz invested her own savings in helping David and Delia Craig to convert their Lewa Estate into the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary.
This interview of Martin, in Swara Magazine: The Voice of Conservation in East Africa, includes a photo of Anna Merz with the orphaned rhino, Samia, that she raised and is featured in Kirk's book.

There's a short video about the book, with the author on location in Africa.

Author Jane Yolen's work first caught my eye with the assonant title "Thunder Underground". I had been looking (in vain) for books that depict the invisible mechanisms of climate change, and Thunder Underground seemed a related effort to convey the unseen to children.

But more relevant to Veblen House is her book, "The Devil's Arithmetic," about the detailed records the Nazi's kept of what became known as the Holocaust. Veblen led efforts to find employment for jewish physicists and mathematicians seeking refuge in the U.S. as the Nazi's took control of Germany in the 1930s.

Kate Hosford's "How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea" looks like good reading for an envisioned children's reading hour next to the hearth at Veblen House. The Veblens instituted the tradition of tea, first at the original Fine Hall mathematics center on Princeton University campus, then later at the Institute for Advanced Study. The tradition lives on, daily at the IAS, and periodically at what is now called Jones Hall. Elizabeth Veblen developed her passion for tea growing up in York, England, before moving to Princeton and meeting Oswald, whom she must have decided was her perfect cup of tea.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Writers Stephen Dixon and E.B. White, and the Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine

This time of year, as summer loses its hold on the land, people of means or circumstance return to Princeton from their summer retreats in the north. Through coincidence or serendipity, the story of Veblen House, and the profound meaning a homestead can have in people's lives, will head the opposite direction: north from the unexpectedly endearing vulture family perched on a farm cottage in Herrontown Woods to the town in Maine where a beloved spider named Charlotte once lived. There were many spiders weaving their webs on E.B. White's farm in Brooklin, Maine, but Charlotte became singularly famous for making the leap into White's imagination, and coming to life in the story he weaved.

E.B. White's farm overlooking Allen's Cove in northern Brooklin, with Arcadia National Park rising in the distance, is for sale. For properties with special histories and owners, like E.B. White's farm or, as we'll see, the Veblen's seaside cottage 5 miles to the south, a change in ownership, like the change in leadership of a nation, is fraught with peril. Will a house's special charms be preserved, or be lost to neglect or gentrification? Both E.B. White's farm and the Veblen's cottage in Brooklin came up for sale in the mid-1980s. Veblen's cottage at the time was being rented out in the summer to the writers Anne Frydman and Stephen Dixon, who loved the cottage like E.B. White loved his farm. How E.B. White's farm fared since being sold in 1986, perhaps aided by its historic designation, is described in this article in New England Today. The trajectory of the Veblen's Maine cottage is described in the correspondence I had with Stephen Dixon, below.

The Veblens would journey north from Princeton each summer to their rustic cottage on Nasqueg Point in Brooklin. They had discovered the area through Elizabeth's sister and brother in law, Charlotte and Clinton Davisson, who had bought a house there. Beginning in the mid-1960s, with Oswald gone and Elizabeth getting up in years, the cottage stood empty for about ten years, until poet and translater Anne Frydman found it and convinced the Veblen's niece Elizabeth Davisson to let her rent it.

From 1979 to 1986, Anne and her husband, writer Stephen Dixon, spent their summers there, surrounded by the simplicity and soul of the cottage, and breathing what must be the most delicious ocean breezes. As Stephen describes in his emails to me, he and Anne left everything in the cottage just as it had been when the Veblens lived there--the formidable cooking wood stove, the bookshelf of Ulysses, Conrad and Yeats, the antique clocks, even the Veblen's spicerack, with spices long since hardened in their jars. The cottage was "too beautiful to change", even the curious combined toilet-shower accessed from the patio (knowing about it adds extra meaning to a similar toilet-shower combination in the Veblen House).

Like E.B. White's farm, whose barn and animal life found its way into Charlotte's Web, the Veblen's cottage in Maine found its way into stories Stephen Dixon wrote while living there. He sent me a list, which I'll include here further down, and the cottage shows up in photos on the front and back of a book of Anne Frydman's poetry, published posthumously in 2016, The Three O'Clock Bird.

There are many characters in the story of Veblen House, and not all of them are people. Some are animals, others are plants (the writer of the story being a botanist), and a number are the buildings themselves. Along with the Veblen House and the Maine cottage, there was, and still is, the cottage in Herrontown Woods that began as a farmhouse in 1875. Both cottages were unwinterized when the Veblens owned them, with two chimneys and a large cooking stove.

Brooklin, as described on its wikipedia page, sounds like "Herrontown North". Fish fertilizer was used to make the rocky ground productive, and back in the 1880s, around when Veblen was born in Iowa, the town of Brooklin was known for its smoked herring. All this can also be said of northeastern Princeton, which was originally known as "Herringtown". Is it chance that a man whose grandparents had come to America from Norway would be drawn to rocky landscapes and live his summers with a view eastward across the Atlantic?

In our work to save and repair the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods, there's been discussion of whether it's worth saving the cottage, which is in considerable disrepair. Veblen bought it in 1936, and used it for his study. Now it is unique in Princeton, a small, simple but well-built farmhouse, made both vulnerable and enchanting by its isolated setting surrounded by woods.

Both E.B. White, writing at a simple bench he built in a converted boathouse, and Stephen Dixon's descriptions below, speak to the affection people can hold for simple but elegant shelters. E.B. White's favorite book is said to have been Thoreau's Walden. Less can be more, and the cottage in Herrontown Woods can be an enduring reminder of a simpler past if we are able to save it.

I learned of Stephen Dixon and his 8 years residency at the Veblen cottage in Maine through Jane Smith of Charlottesville, Virginia, a good friend of the Veblen's niece, namesake and sole family heir, Elizabeth Davisson, who inherited the Veblen cottage when Elizabeth died in 1974. Stephen taught in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins for 26 years, and over the course of his life has written more than 500 short stories and 15 novels, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award.

During the summers they spent in Brooklin, the Veblen Cottage found its way into their hearts and into their writings. After a lifetime of writing on a manual typewriter, Dixon's hands overpower a computer keyboard, like a steam engine casting sparks of collateral letterage as he types his emails. The collateral letterage has been edited out, the better to appreciate all he has to tell.

Of note in the correspondence is what he heard about Oswald (that "he got his best ideas chopping wood"), the gradual memory of the special kind of tea the Davissons drank (lapsang souchong, which is truly distinctive and delicious), the mention of caretaker Stan Gray (who served in Maine as Max Latterman served at the Veblen House), and Stephen's deep appreciation of the cottage's charm and simplicity. There is a mix of joy and sadness. While the Veblen's farm cottage in Herrontown Woods suffered from neglect after it was donated to the public trust, the Veblen cottage in Maine experienced the opposite when it was sold in 1986--a gentrification that preserved the cottage while sacrificing the qualities that the Dixons had found so appealing.

The correspondence can be seen by clicking on "Read more".

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Black Vulture Family Up Close at the Veblen Cottage Farmstead

Black vultures four--who could ask for anything more? Okay, there are just three in this family photo. We'll get to the fourth one in a minute. This past Sunday, prior to a work session clearing invasive shrubs in Herrontown Woods, and equipped with better cameras, we returned to Veblen Cottage to check in on the black vulture family mentioned in a previous post.

I guess family values aren't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of vultures, but these black vultures are a tight-knit group. That's mom and pop on the right, with the wrinkly skin on their heads (best not to sully any feathers when dipping one's head daintily into rotting carcasses). Hard to know which parent is which. Vultures don't flaunt their sexual identity. And that's a fledgling on the left, still with baby fuzz on the head.

Family means something for black vultures. On this AllAboutBirds site, they are described by the writer as "one of my favorite birds." He describes their characteristic flight pattern: a few beats of the wings followed by a glide." "Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty," he says, "Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged." It may not be coincidence that, in this serendipitous photoshoot, the parents gave their fledgling the top perch on the chimney.

As we snapped photos from below, the birds were surprisingly cooperative, adopting various poses, from noble, to domestic, to nobly domestic.

Laurie Larson, longtime birder in Princeton who has tracked population numbers over the years as part of the Christmas Bird Count (her data and stories below), suggested the fledgling bears a striking resemblance to Voltaire. People have long suspected a ghost residing in the rather disheveled Veblen Cottage. Was it Veblen himself? Einstein? Now we know.

While the three vultures were preening for the camera up on the chimney of the cottage, another fledgling, looking a bit down and out, was hiding in the corn crib. It didn't seem to be able to fly up to join its kin on the chimney.

When I approached, it shuffled out of the corn crib and hid in the brush.

Laurie's Voltaire comparison is spot on, but I also see something of Art Garfunkle here.

As an aside, given that the photos were taken at the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods, Oswald Veblen died on the brink of the 60s era, but Garfunkel, who performed last year in Princeton, shares Veblen's broad interest in math, architecture and great books. Garfunkel initially majored in architecture, and completed coursework for a PhD in math education while part of Simon and Garfunkel. His interest for numbers expressed itself early on as a fascination with the rise of hits on the pop charts. He has kept a full and public accounting of books he has read, including Voltaire in 1969. He also has that second banana status, which Veblen knew well from living, perhaps contentedly enough, in the shadow of his more famous uncle Thorstein and science icons like Einstein and von Neumann. Part of the joy of the Herrontown Woods project is rediscovering the value of forgotten buildings and legacies that have long flown beneath most people's radar.

Here's the farmstead's little barn and corncrib, whose impending demolition earlier this year by the county, along with all the other Veblen buildings, seemed unstoppable until so many people in the community spoke out to support an initiative by Friends of Herrontown Woods ( to save them. Fortunately, for the black vultures as well as the history of Herrontown Woods, Princeton town council swooped in, raptor-like, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. FOHW is now working on an agreement with the town to repair and sustain the buildings, while, of course, continuing habitat and trail work, and snapping photos of the local wildlife.

It's funny about the black vultures. They've provided a somewhat haunting presence around the farmstead for years. Not sure what to do with the connotations they carry, we tried to pay them little mind, preferring to talk about the flashy pileated woodpeckers and the elusive great-horned owl. But maybe it's time to give the vultures their due. They are a cleansing force in the universe. They deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with. They find sustenance in unlikely places, and extend the food chain one link further. They're faithful and diligent parents.

I liked this pose, two generations on a branch.

In the distance, you can see the other parent perched on the chimney of the cottage. This was just before they assembled for the group shots on the chimney.

The vultures appreciate the Veblen Cottage's classic design with a chimney at either end.

Any good photo shoot includes grooming behavior. The parents groomed the juvenile; the juvenile groomed the parents.

One adult aimed for the noble raptor look, confirming the AllAboutBirds writer's view that these vultures are "almost dapper."

Things got downright statuesque here, with the juvenile taking the parents under its wings.

Five days later, we were standing in the Veblen House driveway in late morning when we heard a great ruckus in the treetops behind the barn, not far from the cottage. My friend was giving me advice about fixing up the Veblen House. He didn't have much time, and what he was saying was important. I dismissed the ruckus in the treetops as small birds hassling a crow or hawk or owl. I continued to listen to my friend as the calls reached a blood curdling frenzy. Life was on the line, be it a bird or squirrel. We headed over to take a look just as a large black bird flew off down the hill, the noise fading behind. It looked large enough to have been an eagle.

We walked over to the cottage, and found the second juvenile had been hiding in the crawlspace. It came out and walked ahead of us around the corner,

then hopped onto the old kitchen sink and spread its wings, looking our way, as if to impress us, then hopped down and headed towards the corncrib.

Later, I grew concerned about what might have transpired in the treetops. Who was the aggressor and who was the victim? Eagles are one of the few predators of black vultures, which in turn occasionally prey on weak or injured animals. Was that large dark bird that flew off a vulture, and had it been on the attack or defending its own fledgling? Black vultures lack vocal organs, so the mortal cries must have been generated by something else.

It occurred that the reason the vultures had been so patient with our photoshoot five days prior was that they were lingering at the cottage to guard the weaker fledgling, hoping it would find the strength to join them in flight.

I returned to the Veblen Cottage the next day to find the vultures gone. After years of trying to ignore them, I suddenly felt their absence.

(This post also appears at, along with some historical data on vultures in Princeton.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Princeton to Take Ownership of Herrontown Woods and Veblen House

Today is a special day. It's my younger daughter's birthday, but from now on, August 7 will also be remembered as the day Mercer County announced an agreement to transfer Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings to the town of Princeton. Town council, responding to a groundswell of support for saving the Veblen House, has agreed to take ownership of the house, cottage and other structures, along with the 142 acres of preserved Princeton ridge forest, and will work out a lease arrangement with our nonprofit.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods got a green light four years ago to restore the trail system and habitat. Our success at making the preserve welcoming to hikers, along with the tremendous support people have shown for our work, has convinced town council to give us a chance to repair and repurpose the buildings as well.

The Veblens donated Herrontown Woods in 1957, as a place "where you can get away from cars and just walk and sit." Now, after a ten year effort to gain recognition for the value of the buildings, we will develop an agreement with Princeton that will allow us to honor the other part of the Veblen's legacy--buildings that can serve as a gathering place, complementary to the open space that surrounds them.

At this turning point, we feel great gratitude to all of our supporters who spoke out when demolition seemed imminent, and to the mayor and town council for their positive intervention. Now, finally, we can look forward to putting these well-crafted buildings on a positive trajectory, and making them a great asset for the Princeton community.

Note: The youthfulness of my daughter in the first photo attests to how long we've been working to reach this point. I first came upon Veblen House ten years ago, while doing plant inventories in Princeton's nature preserves.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Happy Birthday, Christine Paschall Davis Stuart

There are many paths that lead to and from the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods. Some are literally paths in the woods. Many of those paths had become overgrown until volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods rediscovered and cleared their routes. Others are historical paths--lines of meaning that can be pieced back together through online research of the people who once lived there. There are the buildings themselves, each of which has a story behind it, as yet not fully known, and the Veblens, who left such a profound mark on Princeton and the world.

This story, however, is one of many to tell about the prosperous Whiton-Stuart family that brought the house to Princeton in the 1930s.  The story takes us from the spring waters of south central Tennessee to the highest levels of the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, and the decades-long efforts of Norman H. Davis to prevent the Second World War.

July 29 this year would be Christine's 112th birthday, Christine being the first wife of Robert Whiton-Stuart, son of the builders and first occupants of what later would become known as the Veblen House.

Like Robert's mother, Mary Marshall Ogden, Christine had southern roots. Christine Paschall Davis was born July 29, 1905 in a town in south central Tennessee called Tullahoma, known for the waters there that bubble generously from the ground. In the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was routed to pass by the springs, so that steam engines could fill up their tenders with the dependable spring water. Tullahoma later served as the headquarters for the Confederate army in Tennessee in 1863. The town's recovery after the Civil War was aided partly by the railroad line, partly by Tullahoma's educational institutions, which were exceptional for the region. It was likely also those educational institutions that brought Christine's future parents together.

Christine's grandfather, McClin H. Davis, had prospered in the distilling business, having perfected the recipe for Cascade Whiskey, later known as George Dickel. Though she spent her summers in Tullahoma, Christine graduated from the Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that dates back to 1798. After attending Vassar College and graduating from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school, she worked for a time at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on east 64th St.

As with others who figured in the lives of the Whiton-Stuarts, Christine's name acquires more and more significance with time and research. Her ancestry has deep roots in America. One of her father's ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. She's listed in a book as descendent #1144 of Jackson M. Yancey and Elizabeth B. Goode, his wife, though it's not yet clear who Mr. Yancey was, to have had his descendants so well researched. Nor is it yet clear whether the Paschall family of Christine's mother has notable history.

The name Davis, however, is best known through the career of her father Norman Hezekiah Davis, who would play significant roles in the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations. Before entering public life, Davis was a successful businessman. He briefly ran the distillery business, then took advantage of family connections to do business in Cuba. By 1918, at age 40, he had made a million dollars in Cuban banking and Cuban sugar.

Remarkably, and it's not yet clear what the prompt or precedent might have been, at that young age he retired from business and devoted himself to public service. Serving Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then as Undersecretary of State, Davis would become highly involved in seeking peaceful solutions to international tensions in the years between the World Wars. Briefly serving as Wilson's secretary of state, he likely would have gained that position in FDR's administration, if not for his close association with J. Pierpont Morgan. Instead, he served as a close advisor of FDR's secretary of state, and played an often parallel role as FDR's "ambassador at large". Later, FDR appointed Davis the national chairman of the Red Cross during the very demanding years of World War II.

Norman Davis's world view appears prescient, and relevant to our day. He spoke out against harsh economic punishment of nations defeated in WWI, asserting that steep tariffs and other forms of "economic warfare" were as destructive as a conflict of arms. He warned that economic punishment of Germany would cause resentment in that nation. History proved this warning correct, as Hitler later exploited that resentment to gain power. Through the 1920s, Davis criticized isolationist, protectionist policies that sound reminiscent of those being proposed today, almost a century later. The U.S. absence from the League of Nations was as conspicuous back then as the president's departure from the Paris climate accord is today. "America First" was a slogan as current then as now. Davis argued that a policy of independence instead of international cooperation was promoting nationalist tendencies that could lead to another world war. The U.S., he believed, needed to actively exercise its moral and political influence in the world.

Christine and Robert married in 1937, when her father was ambassador-at-large for FDR, and world tensions were escalating. Robert's parents, the Whiton-Stuarts, were living in Princeton at the time, presumably much more buffered from world events. It's not at all clear how Christine and Robert met. The wedding photo appeared in newspapers all across the country, as well as in Life Magazine. They were married at 5pm, March 23, 1937, by Rev. Elmore McKee, rector of St. George's Church at the Davis home on E. 79th St. "Christine will wear the ivory satin gown which her three sisters, Mrs. John Fennelly, Mrs John C. Potter, and Mrs. J Sterling Getchell, wore, and a Juliet cap with a veil. Her flowers will be white narcissi." The rector's church, by the way, was once known as "Morgan's church". J. Pierpont Morgan was its most influential parishioner, to whose company Norman Davis had close ties.

President Roosevelt's mother, the formidable mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt, attended. The marriage date had been pushed forward when Norman Davis was called to Europe for meetings about the growing tensions there.

Perhaps the hasty rescheduling explains why the only attendant to the bride and groom was Lawrence M.C. Smith, as best man. Again, an internet search opens up another world of significance and meaning. Smith and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by writer Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived.

Christine's and Robert's marriage lasted less than ten years. Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness.

Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, had died in 1942, and her father on July 2, 1944--both in their mid-60s. The reasons for early death in the family are not clear. Christine's grandfather, McLinn Davis, had died young, though his work perfecting the taste of whiskey could have had consequences. Norman Davis may have succumbed from the enormous stress of high level public service during the war years, compounded by the death two years earlier of his wife, who was his constant traveling companion. President Roosevelt, in a telegram to the family, said "He had worked far beyond his strength, and indeed was a casualty of war."

At the time of Christine's death, they were living at 1158 Fifth Ave. in New York City, and her husband Robert was described in the obit as "assistant to the president of the George A. Fuller Company, contractors." Their son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, has left no trace on the internet that we have yet to find. Clues for further research come from the obits:
Besides her husband, Mrs. Stuart is survived by a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, three sisters, Mrs. Malcolm Smith of New York, Mrs. John F. Fennelly of Lake Forest, Ill. and Mrs. John Potter of Peterson Farms, Mount Kisco, N.Y. and four brothers, Macklin P. Davis and J. Pascall Davis of Nashville, Tenn., Goode P. Davis of Santa Barbara, Cal., and Norman P. Davis of Chappaqua, N.Y. Funeral services were held Saturday at 2:30p in Georges Chapel, 17th St, and Stuyvesant Square, New York City.
Some themes from this story continue in Robert's subsequent two marriages. From the springs of Tullahoma, where Christine was born, and Hot Springs, where her father Norman Davis went as his health worsened, we'll head north to the cool, curative sulphurous waters of Sharon Springs, NY, which feature prominently in Robert's second marriage. And then there's alcohol, profited by if not directly imbibed. Whereas the whiskey distilling business contributed to the wealth of the Davises, the second family Robert married into achieved its wealth in the brewing business in pre-prohibition NY. Researching his third marriage, we've found another heroic in-law, still alive, devoting many decades not to saving the world from war, but to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction.