Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Distinctive Windows of Veblen House

Veblen House has beautifully crafted windows, with oak woodwork and little details that add up.

The living room windows, looking out on the expansive garden, create almost a cathedral effect.

Outside, the windows have distinctive hoods. Only one other house in Princeton has been found with this feature.

One window, located under a balcony that had channeled rainwater towards the wall, was removed to repair the rotted framework.

First step was to jack up the ceiling and install a header. 

The windows still function, but some have lost some wooden muntins due to break-ins during the long period of neglect. 

Fortunately, architectural historian Clifford Zink has offered to repair them with wood he has collected over the years.

The windows slide open on hardware designed out west by Vincent Whitney Co. 

Meanwhile, Robb is cleaning up any rot on the sills and applying epoxy. 

As an example of how much thought and craft went into building the windows, most of the muntins are beveled, but a few are not. It might look like a defect or oversight until one notices that the unbeveled muntins are strategically located around two panes, at the top left and right of each window that faces south or west. I theorized that they were left with straight edges so that ornamental glass, e.g. stained glass windows, could be inserted from the inside and held in place. 

Then I happened to go up in the attic. I was showing a Princeton University architecture student around, and his intense curiosity about the house got me looking more closely. The house has been stripped of most everything from the Veblen days, but in a corner of the attic was a pile of glass windows that looked about the right size to fit in the big windows downstairs. 
Sure enough, these are what originally slid into those specially cut spots in the south- and west-facing windows. Though all dusty now, slipping them in place would have creating a space with a clear window on front and back. What would they have put in there? I could imagine dried flowers, or shadow puppets, or stained glass. A nifty idea.

Below is a photo of the living room of Veblen House from the 1950s, when the Veblens were living there. No sign these display panels were in use back then. The view of Elizabeth's garden through the windows probably created its own stained glass effect.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Origin Story of the Einstein Begonia

An unexpected vein of Veblen-related research began with an email from a friend at the Princeton Public Library asking me to assist in finding a descendent of Einstein's begonia. Einstein had a begonia he was fond of, and after he died his secretary gave cuttings to physicist friends in Princeton. With a little help from the internet, I was able to learn the story of how cuttings from Einstein's begonia have lived on long after his passing in 1955. A friend also gave me some cuttings, two of which I passed on to people involved in creating an Einstein museum in Princeton. 

I thought I was done with my work until a Canadian film director named Charlie Tyrell contacted me. He's making a movie called "Show Me the Past is Real," exploring "the emotional power that objects have over us personally and collectively," and would like to find the actual plant--the "mother plant"--that Einstein himself owned. (One of the creative and moving documentaries that Charlie has done, by the way, is called Broken Orchestra, about a citizen movement to get Philadelphia to restore funding for music in the schools. Watching it is eleven minutes well spent.)

The search for the "mother plant" led me back to my friend Vicki who had supplied me with cuttings, to see if she knew the progression of owners through whom her plants had come. She said she'd contact her source. 

For a long time, I heard nothing, and then came an email out of the blue from Norma Smith. 

Dear Steve,

My husband and I were walking in the Herrontown Woods near the Veblen house and met you last year, I believe. 
My husband AJStewart Smith (83) is a retired professor from the physics department at Princeton University. I was and remain friends with many of the retired physics faculty members and their spouses. The story of the Einstein begonia is as follows: 
Mrs. Joan (pronounced Joann) Treiman, the wife of Sam Treiman, a theorist who was a young physics faculty member when Einstein was alive, got a cutting of the Einstein begonia from Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas. Joan Treiman gave a cutting to another faculty member’s wife, Eunice Wilkinson. Eunice Wilkinson gave me a cutting and I and my husband (a true gardener) thought the plant was so special that we made many cuttings and started to give cuttings to people who seemed as enthusiastic about the plant as we were. I gave the cutting to Vicky Bergman who was in my aerobics group at the Senior Center, and somewhere over the years we heard even the horticultural department at the university started to call it the “Einstein Begonia”! Joan Treiman died in 2013 at age 87 and I am quite sure she no longer had the plant when she died. Eunice Wilkinson now lives in a retirement center in Boulder, Colorado and no longer has a plant to my knowledge. 
We were thrilled to hear what you are doing re Oswald Veblen’s home and the land he donated. My parents were immigrants from Norway and I knew Veblen had Norwegian ancestry so was always interested in stories about him. His uncle Thorstein Veblen had a summer hut on Washington Island, in Door County, Wisconsin; our daughter-in-law’s family lives in Door County and our son and family have a home there so we have made several trips to Washington Island and have read stories about Thorstein’s presence on the island, interesting to look up on google if you don’t already know about them. 
Good luck with the wonderful work you are undertaking. 
Best wishes, Norma Smith
It was astonishing to hear the whole lineage laid out. Historical research usually involves piecing together bits and pieces from multiple sources over time. Another friend's source for Einstein begonias, Martha Otis, contacted me with essentially the same news: the "motherplant is long gone - only cuttings from cuttings from cuttings etc on and on exist." 

Thanks to Vicki, Teresa, Martha, and especially Norma for helping trace the lineage of the Einstein begonia back to Einstein himself. 

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Some Beautiful Features of the Veblen House

The beauty of Veblen House doesn't grab you at first. Though the setting is lovely, the exterior has for now lost its ornament of balcony and outside stairway. The inside has for nearly 25 years been darkened by boards over the windows. The paint is chipped, but with the right camera and the right lighting, the charms of Veblen House begin to accumulate. We've shown the house to many architects and builders, and each has said they've never seen anything quite like it. After 15 years of advocating for the house, and successfully resisting those who wished to tear it down, we are still discovering new things about it. Bob Wells, who lived in the house longer than anyone, from 1975 to 1998, wrote of the house in 2009 what has proven to be true: "She reveals her secrets and special beauties slowly and to those that love her and attend to her." We've discovered the same about the Herrontown Woods of which Veblen House is a part. Some of its secrets only come clear through acts of stewardship.

These are some of the house's features captured by founding Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Sally Tazelaar when she photographed the inside of the house in 2019.

The doors are custom built of oak, 

with hidden "Soss" hinges.  
Interior doors have carved wooden doorknobs.
There are curves everywhere: in the baseboard,
in some of the windows, 
in the hollow wooden column that cleverly disguises a vent.

Even some of the wood paneling is curved, in this case an early form of plywood that has held together despite the extremes of temperature and humidity that the house has been exposed to during its extended period of neglect. 

The bathroom features have survived intact, unchanged since the house was assembled on the site in 1930.

The closet doors in the main bathroom have an unusual shape.

There are curious connections between rooms and floors--
vents that suggest some sort of active or passive ventilation to cool the house in summer. 
The master bath has an interior window that allows natural light from the west side of the house to reach the bathroom. 

The windows, too, are beautifully crafted, with copper screening. 

Kitchen cabinets too are custom built.

The broad kitchen doorway has outsized hinges, 
and a vintage fan.
The living room paneling around the fireplace has hidden doors, perhaps to store liquors.

Something that once was beautiful and could be again is the hearth. I was told the marble is from Italy, the veneer paneling is either restorable or replaceable, and we figured out that the painting that once was built into the woodwork was a landscape of the Arizona desert painted by a remarkable artist and photographer named Kate Cory, some of whose paintings can be found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

There are built-in bookshelves in the living room and the upstairs study.

It was years before we realized that the bedroom doors leading to the east balcony were originally windows that were later extended down to create a doorway. Modifications like this suggest that the Veblens made some changes to the house after buying it from the Whiton-Stuarts in 1941. They must have loved the windows so much that they modified them rather than installing a whole new door.

Though the house is a prefab, the story goes that a Russian woodworker spent two years customizing the interior. Who that might have been, in Princeton in the early 1930s, is still a mystery.

Thanks to Sally Tazelaar for these photos.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

A Vernacular Bridge Used by Veblen, Einstein, and Pyne

Few people driving out Snowden Lane in Princeton will notice this little old bridge. Replaced by a larger bridge in 1965, it still remains, just upstream of the newer one. Why was it not demolished when the new bridge was built? Either they realigned the road for other reasons, or someone felt it special enough to save. Back when this part of town was referred to as "the country", the bridge would have been used frequently by the Veblens to reach their home, by their friends like Einstein to visit, and by members of the Moses Taylor Pyne family to reach their horse farm where Snowden Lane meets Herrontown Road. 

I showed it to architectural historian Clifford Zink, and he immediately uttered a German word meaning homemade. A "vernacular bridge!," he declared. 

He pointed out the narrow ledge running the length of the bridge, at the bottom of the arch on both sides. The ledge had supported the arch-shaped wooden framing, called "centering", upon which the stones had been laid, in such a way that their shapes would keep them in place after the framing was later removed.

There's lots to appreciate about this bridge. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. But you can see on the lower right that the bridge is starting to lose some stones. 

The bridge seems to me worth saving. There's a need for a safer way for bicyclists and pedestrians to reach Smoyer Park and Herrontown Woods from nearby residential neighborhoods, and this narrow stretch of Snowden is currently like a gauntlet. The little bridge could be part of a bikeway/sidewalk. 

I contacted the town engineers, but they say it's owned not by the town but by the homeowner, who has not expressed interest in repairing it. Strange that a structure that once was public, spanning a stream, would now be privately owned. If it were to collapse or become blocked, you'd think the resulting blockage would be a public concern.  

A previous post shows how the stonework is not just at either end of the bridge, but extends the full width.

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Roof That Wasn't -- How the Veblen House Roof Came To Be

One of the stories passed down about Veblen House was that its roof was built separately from the rest of the house. I had assumed that meant that the Whiton-Stuarts had brought the first and second floors from Morristown, then added a roof when the house was reassembled on its current site in Princeton. 

Then came a day when a number of us were up in the attic with some knowledge of construction and history--Clifford Zink, Jim Huffman, Peter Thompson--not sure who all. And someone pointed out that the layer of thick tar paper covering the floor looked as if it were the covering for a flat roof. They looked more closely, and found more evidence to that effect. 

I had assumed that the flat roof had been a temporary and less than ideal condition soon improved upon by the Whiton-Stuarts during their ten years there in the 1930s. After all, the fixtures used to bolt the roof together closely resembled bolts used elsewhere in the house. 

The real story was waiting to be found at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in Box 43 of Oswald Veblen's papers, donated after his death. In fact, the real story had been found years ago, and sent to me by Victoria Floor after she spent a couple days going through his papers while visiting a friend there. I recently looked back and read what she'd sent:


Our carpenter, Robb Geores said he was "intrigued  that parapet walls were removed on the gable ends. Parapet walls are usually a low wall around a flat roof. I would guess that they framed the roof on top of the flat roof. Then removed the parapet walls on the gable ends and then filled them in. There's still a curb up there in the attic. And also what appears to be exterior roofing on the floor. Totally supports the theory."

Robb sent a link from the Princeton Academy website, describing the legacy of the Matthews Construction Company, which built their Manor House. Describing the "quality of the construction and craftsmanship," they described Matthews as
by far the most successful construction company in Princeton in the first half of the twentieth century. Their projects include the Nassau Inn and Palmer Square, the Graduate College and most of the Collegiate Gothic buildings on the Princeton campus. Matthews built the Dignan House in 1930 and 1931 at the height of the Depression and the project provided vital labor for the firm’s stonemasons, woodcarvers, and glaziers. During the late 1920s, Matthews constructed the Princeton University Chapel.

The NY Times obituary for Matthews in 1951 states that the firm erected most of the buildings on campus over the course of fifty years. 

There's evidence that the Veblens also added other features of the house visible from the outside, including the balcony and stairway. When they bought it, the house had stood there for ten years, lived in at least periodically by the Whiton-Stuarts, and must have appeared to be little more than a box. That makes more plausible Jesse Whiton-Stuart's claim, in a letter to Veblen, that he'd simply dismantle it and move it back to Morristown if Veblen wasn't interested in buying.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Balsam Wool--An Early Form of Insulation Found in the Veblen House

It's a good feeling to have most of the framing for Veblen House repaired. Though there were some sills, joists, and studs that needed to be either replaced or "sistered", the extent of rot was surprisingly small, considering the house went through 23 years of neglect, boarded up since 1998. 

The need to open up some walls to look for rot has offered an opportunity to learn more about the house. Our carpenter, Robb Geores, has a good eye for clues to the house's history and construction logic. Yesterday, he needed to remove some wallboard to inspect the underlying studs next to the basement stairway, 

and amidst some broken up insulation found a wad of crumpled newspaper that could offer evidence of when that part of the house was built. 
He also discovered the name of the insulation used when the house was built. "Balsam Wool Blanket", according to some internet research, was developed by Westinghouse in Minnesota. One source explains the name: "The fibers came from various wood species such as redwood, fir (Balsam), cedar and usually consisted of the tree bark, wood pulp and other wood byproducts."

Judging from advertising for the product back in the 1920s, the concept of insulation, especially insulation that came in rolls, was in its infancy. A 1929 ad for Balsam Wool insulation touts its thickness (1 inch was considered thick back then), and its capacity to "tuck into every nook and cranny" and "seal every crack." Jesse Whiton-Stuart, seeking to sell the house to the Veblens in the late 30s, touted these very characteristics--the house's draft-resistant, insulated walls. 

"Isn't it absurd," the advertisement declares, "to buy a good boiler, feed it expensive fuel and then let a third or more of the heat escape through the walls and roof?" It's not clear if this common sense frugality was present throughout the 20s, or became popular only after the stock market crash in 1929.