Saturday, October 9, 2021

When the Bottum's at the Top: Clues to Veblen House's Making

There are many times, in the restoration of Herrontown Woods, when the right person showed up at the right time. The story of the gazebo in particular has instances of uncanny arrivals. As the summer of 2021 wore on, we were starting to wonder, in this pandemic era when so many people are remodeling their homes, how we'd ever find a professional carpenter with time and inclination to work on the Veblen House. It came to mind, though, that builders of theater sets might still be in a lull, and so I reached out to our past board member Perry Jones, who has contacts at McCarter Theater. Word was passed along, ultimately leading to a fortuitous email arriving in my inbox. 

Enter Robb Geores, a carpenter who had worked at McCarter Theater off and on for decades, as well as the Metropolitan Opera in NY, and has restored Victorian buildings in Cape May. 

Robb has been working on Veblen House for a month now, and he is proving to have a remarkable eye for detail. In the process of rebuilding the east wall, he has been finding lots of clues to how, and how well, the house was constructed.

For instance, how the sills that run along the bottom of the inside walls are locked together. The house is a prefab, apparently not made by Sears or any of the other more common makers of kit houses early in the 20th century. 
Many parts of it, however, appear to have been made in a factory, and stamped to identify where each part goes. There's sill #1, sill #2, etc.
The house has an inner and an outer wall, and on the east side, the outer wall suffered considerable water damage during the house's two decades of neglect. Taking the outer wall off, like a scab, has revealed the inner wall that actually bears the weight of the house. It is made up of five panels, manufactured in a factory, shipped by rail from Morristown to Princeton around 1930, and assembled on site. The large, squarish panels are labeled "m", "n", "o", "p", and "Q", each 116" high, with varying widths, depending on whether they contained a window.

Each panel has diagonal boards on the outside that provide rigidity. 
The panels butt up against each other in a special way, with a notched border. You can see how tightly the house was constructed. 

On the better preserved sections, you can see the thick layer of tarpaper that coated the inside wall. 

Against the tarpaper was then bolted the frame for the outer wall, 
its 2x4s expertly notched. The panels of the outside wall were bolted together and then covered with an early form of housewrap called Sisalkraft


On the last outer panel, "Q", Robb found some writing that looked like "Bottom."


He took a closer look and saw that it was spelled "Bottum." Since the word was on a board at the top of the panel, he first figured that the word was mispelled and that the panel had been installed upside down. But the house is beautifully constructed--surely not by the sort of person who would hastily misspell a word and put a panel in upside down. More likely, that person, reaching the last panel, with a taste for fun and irony, would have scrawled his name, Bottum, on the top. 

Googling "Bottum" led to a history of the name's origins in the York area of England, where coincidentally Veblen's future wife, Elizabeth Richardson, had lived before moving to Princeton.

"Bottom", of course, is a memorable character in Midsummer Night's Dream, which we'd love to stage on the Veblen House grounds.

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called 'Bottom's Dream', because it hath no bottom.

And when Peter Quince is done writing that ballad, maybe he'll help us replant quince trees in front of the Veblen House, where they were still growing when I first encountered the house back in 2008. 

Another interesting potential clue to the house's history came while Robb was waiting for the traffic light to change, up at the intersection of Snowden and Nassau Street. 

The Veblen House has these distinctive hoods, or "eyebrows", over some of the windows, basically a board held up on each side. 

The slow traffic light gave Robb time to check out a house at the far corner of the intersection, and he noticed that
the house at 465 Nassau has the same eyebrows over some of its windows. 

My first thought was that the intersection of Snowden and Nassau has special significance connected to Oswald Veblen. It was Henry Fine who, as Dean of the College under Woodrow Wilson, brought to Princeton University Oswald Veblen and other young scholars to be preceptors. Veblen and Fine worked closely over the next two decades, with Veblen ultimately becoming the Henry B. Fine Professor in the mathematics department. 

Henry Fine's brother had founded a Preparatory School on the corner of Snowden and Nassau, and in 1928, riding his bicycle to visit his brother, Henry Fine was struck by an automobile and killed at that intersection. Soon afterwards, Oswald Veblen led the effort to design and build the glorious original Fine Hall (now called Jones Hall) to house the mathematics department. The building, funded by a close friend of Fine's, became the world's premier center for mathematics, housing not only mathematics but also the Institute for Advanced Study in its first years, as Einstein, von Neumann and other great European scholars moved to Princeton to escape persecution by the Nazis.

The powerful connection of this intersection to Veblen's world now has an architectural dimension as well. The story is told that the Veblen House's custom features were added by a Russian woodworker. Maybe that woodworker left his mark on other houses in town as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Humanity Behind Science--Emilio Segrè's Biography of Enrico Fermi

It was a mix of curiosity and serendipity that led me to an example of writing about scientists that reveals the humanity behind the austere academic facade of scientific inquiry. 

The writings were found in Enrico Fermi: Scientist, written by Emilio Segrè, who along with having won the Nobel Prize for physics was also a gifted writer and avid historian. His photos of people and events over the course of his scientific career, donated posthumously to the American Institute of Physics, were apparently so substantial that the AIP named its visual archives in his honor. The AIP calls its Emilio Segrè Visual Archives "the human face of science," with "more than 30,000 photos of scientists and their work."

While the Institute for Advanced Study was rapidly evolving in Princeton in the 1930s, Segrè during that time was one of the "Via Panisperna boys" in Rome--young Italian physicists led by Enrico Fermi during an exciting period of discovery in atomic physics.

Two recent events, related to Oswald Veblen and also my own history, led me to be interested in Enrico Fermi. One was the donation of a book from Oswald Veblen's original library by Jean Rosenbluth, daughter of Marshall and Arianna Rosenbluth, both of whom were distinguished physicists. Marshall Rosenbluth, known in his time as the "dean of plasma physics," would be particularly well known in Princeton, home of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Enrico Fermi was on Rosenbluth's dissertation committee at U. of Chicago, and there's a memorable story told in the NY Times obituary for Rosenbluth that involves Fermi:

(Marshall Rosenbluth) liked to tell friends how Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller -- two stars of 20th-century physics -- got into an argument in 1949 while listening to him defend his doctoral thesis.

''It went on and on,'' recalled Harold Agnew, then a graduate student at Chicago, who eventually directed the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M. ''Finally, Fermi turned to Edward and said, 'O.K., you pass.' And then he turned to Marshall, who was just 22, and said 'O.K., you pass, too.'''

The other recent reference to Fermi came when I began researching the original owner of a house that became our family home soon after we moved to Ann Arbor, MI, in 1970. My parents bought it from the estate of Walter Colby. It took fifty years, and the opportunity to meet the goddaughter of Colby, to finally prompt me to do some research. Colby, it turns out, was an atomic physicist and contemporary of Oswald Veblen. 

The NY Times obituary for Colby states:

During more than 30 years at the university, Dr. Colby made the institution a major center of physics research by recruiting to the faculty from abroad such figures as Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg and Sam Goudsmit.

This sounded very impressive, and suggested that Colby, like Veblen, was involved in finding positions for displaced scholars from Europe in the 1930s. And yet, the NY Times obituary and the wikipedia page for Fermi make no mention of the University of Michigan. Instead, Fermi is described as having gone first to Columbia University, then to the University of Chicago. Was Colby's role in bringing Fermi to the U.S. apocryphal?

It was Segrè's book on Fermi that revealed the answer. In the years leading up to his move from Europe to New York and Columbia University in 1939, Fermi had spent three summers in Ann Arbor, drawn in part by "two old friends, Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit, the discoverers of the electron spin, who had moved from their native Holland to Ann Arbor at the instigation of Professor Walter Colby." From Segrè's book:

As Segrè describes, it was the positive experiences Fermi had in Ann Arbor that helped set the stage for his eventual emigration to America. That decision, and a similar decision by other great European physicists and mathematicians, helped insure that the United States would be the one to develop the atomic bomb, rather than the Nazis or Mussolini.

These passages begin to show how Emilio Segrè a prominent physicist in his own right, was also gifted with a talent for close observation and an ability to give us a dispassionate but engaging, three-dimensional account of other scientists' inner and outer world. Below are some passages from the book that provide insight into how Fermi thought, worked, and influenced those around him. Click on "read more" below to continue reading.

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 VeblenHouse.org 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. 

MRS. WHINFREY HONORED

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.