Saturday, May 20, 2023

Clues on the Walls of Veblen House

In the process of removing asbestos from the Veblen House, the town's contractors have exposed some clues to the Veblen House's past. Most of the wallboard and ceilings contained a skincoat of asbestos-containing material, and were hauled away, revealing here and there a few words and labels on the underlying framing. All of this would have been covered up and "lost to history" if the contractors had painted all exposed surfaces white, as is the usual post-removal procedure. Fortunately, we convinced the town and contractor to apply for a permit to use clear sealant on the walls and ceiling instead. 

One signature on the south wall of the second floor looks like S. Hanlee.

From another angle, it looks more like S.S. Hanlee, so I googled "S.S. Hanlee" ship, and up popped the S.S. Hanley, acquired by Weyerhaeuser in 1923 as an ocean lumber cargo ship. The Hanley and the SS Pomona took lumber to the East Coast. Given that the Balsam Wool insulation in the house was made by Weyerhaeuser, and the house was built in 1931, it's not too farfetched to speculate that some of the lumber for the house, perhaps even the prefab panels themselves, came from that same company.

According to wikipedia, Weyerhaeuser moved its shipping operation from Seattle to Newark, NJ in 1933. The S.S. Hanley and other ships were later put to use for the war effort in WWII. It's conceivable that the S.S. Hanley was named after John Hanley, the only child to be rescued from the S.S. Atlantic, which sank off the coast of England in 1873.

Exploring whether Weyerhaeuser ever built prefab houses, the University of Washington has information on a prefab built in 1932, back when the company was "interested in finding new outlets for its lumber." They did not pursue prefabs any further, however, beyond that one demonstration, according to this text:

Historic New England has information about Weyerhaeuser "4 Square Homes", based in St. Paul, MN. But it looks like "4-square" referred only to lumber used for kiln dried sheathing. The board with the S.S. Hanley inscription looked to be part of the house's sheathing.

Another inscription is less scrutible. "Gellning," maybe? Or Gellnig? Maybe that's a "C"? Nothing popped for those.

Another inscription was a misspelling of J.P.W. Stuart's name, on slats in the ceiling that hold up insulation between the first and second floors. One conclusion is that, whatever business supplied the slats, they didn't know Stuart well enough to spell his name correctly. 

Another item we found inside the walls is metal tags to mark the panels. Each panel is approximately 10' square and bolted together to make the walls. 

Some labels were found on the wallboard and the roof shingles that is helping identify those materials, but that will be taken up in a separate post.

More Vignettes from the Whiton-Stuarts' Days in Prescott, AZ

Removal of asbestos-containing wallboard in the Veblen House revealed this misspelling of the original owner's name. Jesse's name was J.P.W. Stuart, not Stewart. Still, if someone supplying wood for the Whiton-Stuarts' house didn't get the spelling right, maybe others made the same mistake. 

Mary and Jesse Whiton-Stuart brought the prefab house to Princeton from Morristown, NJ, lived in it for ten years, then sold it to the Veblens in 1941. Being wealthy, at least until the crash in 1929, they were frequently mentioned in society columns. Their children's lives too can be tracked in this way. Mary and Jesse married for life, but the son and daughter had seven marriages between them. 

I decided to google J.P.W. Stewart, and got some interesting results. One was a page from a newspaper called the Weekly Journal-Miner, dated Feb. 12, 1913 This dates back to the Whiton-Stuarts' time in Prescott, AZ, when their two kids were young and Jesse left his real estate business in Manhattan to spend his days on a horse, herding cattle in Arizona. 

I love newspapers, which used to cause problems back when I'd save them, to read another day. Now that they are digital, the love can be unfettered by matters of storage. 

Page 5 of the newspaper offers glimpses of their time in Arizona. Here they are, attending a "most attractive and elaborate dinner." This was back when accounts of high society included long lists of who attended. 

Jesse also attended another function, described at length in the "Social Mirror" section of the newspaper. 

That event included amusements for the "misses" who wished to sew. 

Perhaps sewing was not Mary Whiton-Stuart's thing, as she did not attend. 

It can be fun to see what other news appeared on the same newspaper page. Here's an eye-catching headline: the bones of a "giant type of humanity" were found while doing some grading work for the railroad. The bones provide "indisputable" evidence of people who were at least 8 feet tall and dated back to the Toltec period. Similar stories were told of early encounters with a giant race of indigenous peoples in Patagonia. 

The page's politics section also includes mention of George Babbitt, who was likely one of the ancestors of former presidential candidate and environmentalist Bruce Babbitt.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Arrows Point to Veblen History

Herrontown Woods has long been home to arrowwood Viburnums--a native shrub--but on Mothers Day we added an "arrow tree," with arrows pointing to some of the significant places associated with the Veblens' lives and legacy. The arrows were beautifully crafted by Girl Scout Troop 71837, and our caretaker Andrew Thornton scavenged the tree post from among the many rot-resistant trunks of red cedars that still linger in the surrounding woods, long since shaded out by larger trees.

Perhaps some explanation of the arrows' varied destinations is in order.

Old Fine Hall was the original mathematics building at Princeton University, now called Jones Hall. Oswald Veblen is said to have designed the building, down to the stained glass mathematical equations in the windows. 

Valdres is the valley in Norway from which Oswald's grandparents immigrated to the U.S.. Oswald's father wrote a book about that valley and the Norwegians who came from there. 

Einstein's house is included because Einstein would come to Herrontown Woods to visit the Veblens. Einstein would not have moved to Princeton without the work and presence of Veblen, who did so much to help European scholars escape Nazi oppression and come to the U.S.

The yellow arrow facing away from the photo says "Iowa City," where Oswald grew up. His father was a professor of physics at the University of Iowa.

The Institute for Advanced Study is included because it was originally going to be located in Newark. Oswald reached out and successfully made the case that it should be located in Princeton, where it could benefit from synergy with the university. Oswald was the IAS's first faculty member, quickly followed by Einstein. Oswald was instrumental in choosing subsequent faculty members, such as John von Neumann. During its first three years, the Institute was located in Old Fine Hall, along with the Princeton University mathematics department.

The next two arrows point towards Veblen Cottage and Veblen House, which the Veblens acquired in 1936 and 1941, respectfully, and later donated for public use. The buildings have long sat empty (disrespectfully), but the Friends of Herrontown Woods is working to renovate them so that they can finally be utilized as the Veblens originally conceived.

The last arrow points towards York, England, where Elizabeth Veblen grew up. She moved to Princeton to help her brother Owen, who had a visiting position in the Princeton University physics department. Owen later was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. Elizabeth was an avid gardener, and her central role in Princeton social circles is mentioned in the book, A Beautiful Mind

Thanks to Danielle Rollmann and her girlscout troop for creating these most enjoyable and informative arrows!

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Asbestos Removed From Veblen House

Over the past few weeks, asbestos was successfully removed from Veblen House. This critical step in repurposing the house was financed by Princeton municipality. Princeton's open space manager, Cindy Taylor, was our contact person throughout the process. A crew from the Lilich firm showed up Monday, April 10, to start prepping the house for the removal. They built an extended entryway for changing in and out of protective gear, 
and covered the wood floors and paneling with plastic. FOHW had worked over the course of many months prior to prepare the house so that none of the oak trim and paneling would be damaged. In particular, volunteer Scott Sillars put many hours into removing trim and covering the wood floors with RamBoard. The contractor could then come in and strip the walls and ceilings of the asbestos-containing fiberboard. We also identified six heat ducts wrapped with asbestos, and made them accessible for the contractors to remove. 
During removal, these long tubes extended out from the house--part of the ventilator system. The aim, apparently, was to release filtered air some distance away from the house, through holes cut in the ends of the tubes. 
Many bags of asbestos-containing material emerged from the house during the week. Most of the asbestos was in a "skin coat" on the walls and ceilings, requiring the removal of the old fiberboard. Between the studs was lots of an early form of insulation called Balsam Wool. Unfortunately, that, too, needed to be removed, even though it didn't contain asbestos, due to a risk of contamination from asbestos in the air during the operation.

During breakdown one week later, a crew member stuffed that last few bags into the back of the dumpster, to be taken to a special disposal site that accepts asbestos-containing materials.
The project was aided by dry weather.
We weren't supposed to go in until the town had signed off on some documents, so here's a peek from outside through the plexiglass windows. Clean is the scene.

The last step in asbestos removal is usually to paint all exposed wood with white paint, but FOHW convinced the town to have clear sealant applied instead, the better to see any writing or other clues to the house's history inside the walls. 
Three members of the crew posed for a photo. Lasko, in the middle, is the supervisor.

Thanks to the town and Cindy Taylor for all their work and support in bringing this important step to fruition.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

This Old Brick--What Do the Initials Mean?

While prepping the Veblen House for asbestos removal, I removed a grate on the wall and found this very clearly initialed old brick. Our carpenter, Robb Geores, had introduced me to the meaningfulness of stampings on old bricks, so I knew to give these initials their due. There's a substantial compendium of brick initials online, but it didn't include SRBC. 

Back to Robb for his take, and sure enough, he had a possible answer:
I think that might stand for “ South River Brick Company.” I’m not sure, but it may. There was once a company in South River N J that made enameled bricks. It’s near the town that I come from, Sayreville n j which is known for Brick Manufacturing as well. Bricks from Sayreville are embossed S&F B C. ( Sayre and Fisher Brick Company).


The brick was inside the opening for a duct that led to or from the furnace along the edge of the chimney. The orange marking dates back to around 2017, when Mercer County hired a company to mark where asbestos--coated heat ducts could be found in the house. That was part of the county's process that would have led to demolition of the house if not for the Friend of Herrontown Woods' successful effort to save it. 

Also in this photo are two square-shaped impressions in the wall, behind which is the chimney. It will be interesting to see what's behind those two squares. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Inside a Very Old Septic Tank at Veblen House

It's been nearly four years since I discovered the old septic tank for Veblen House, some fifty feet east of the house. A combination of the tank's thick concrete lid and a whole bunch of distractions had kept us from following up, until yesterday. 

Some magical combination of volunteer chemistry finally stirred in us the courage to take on the concrete lid. After four years, it had grown over with myrtle and partially disappeared under years of leaves. 
However, our procrastination may have been strategically helpful. Perhaps it was prolonged exposure to the elements that created some cracks in the concrete, making it possible to remove it in pieces.

With the lid removed, we were finally able to look at how this very old septic tank once functioned. 

Unlike a more modern septic tank, this one is round, built mostly of cinder blocks. Several courses of bricks were laid around the top to narrow the opening. A pipe came in from the house sewer system, 

and another pipe headed out and down the slope, presumably to a leach field. There had been some question as to whether this would be a cesspool rather than a septic tank, but some research suggests that cesspools lack any outgoing pipe.

Though the septic tank hasn't been used in 25 years, it was nearly filled with water, which we assume is groundwater that has penetrated through the walls. The tank is about six feet deep, with less than a foot of muck at the bottom, as best we could tell. 

It's extremely unlikely that we'd be able to use this old tank for house septic, but it is a historic artifact that we're glad to now know a little more about. We carefully covered it back up, our curiosity satisfied.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Historical Research Can Uncover Uncanny Coincidence

There are some aspects of my role in adopting Veblen House as a longterm project that border on the uncanny. Coincidence has accumulated as I've researched the people who lived in the house. The Veblen House itself, I realized at some point, has much in common with the house I grew up in. 

That house, next to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, is now also named after a renowned scientist, the astronomer Otto Struve, and is similar in color to what the Veblen House was, and is at the end of a drive, surrounded by woods, 

Also echoing the Veblen House, it's even approached along a slightly curving walkway, down and to the left as one pulls into the driveway. 

Oswald Veblen came to Princeton after growing up in the midwest, as did I, and after having lived in a progression of university towns, as did I. His grandparents emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin, where I spent my childhood. His father's father built houses and barns, as did mine. His father was a physicist, mine an astrophysicist. Veblen got his PhD at the University of Chicago, where my father would later spend most of his career. It's likely that Veblen as a boy of 13 saw the 40 inch refracting telescope my father used--the world's largest refracting telescope--on exhibit at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. I almost went to Carlton College, where Veblen's father and all of his aunts and uncles got degrees. I spent my childhood roaming the expansive grounds of Yerkes Observatory, where brilliant scientists lived on the outskirts of a small town with school colors orange and black, not unlike the circumstances of the Institute for Advanced Study, which Veblen helped to found on the outskirts of Princeton. 

As if these coincidences aren't enough, there's also the first owners of what would later be called the Veblen House, Jesse and Mary Whiton-Stuart, who lived their last years in towns I have familial connections to--San Luis-Obispo, CA and Tucson, AZ, the latter being where we'd go as part of my father's work at nearby Kitt Peak Observatory.

And then there's the uncanny coincidence that came to light when I began researching the origins of the house in Ann Arbor where I lived for many years. It was built and lived in by Walter Colby, a nuclear physicist who in many ways played the same role at U. of Michigan that Veblen played in Princeton, bringing brilliant scholars from Europe to raise the level of science and math in the U.S. They had parallel lives, born in the same year, retiring the same year, their legacies largely forgotten and in need of rediscovery. Neither had children, and both played important military roles in World Wars I and II. Both were married to women who also led singular lives, and tended to beautiful gardens. 

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Emanns and Einstein at the Cottage

There are many stories about the Veblen House and Cottage that have yet to be written up on this blog. Blame it on the sheer pleasure of pursuing history on the internet. We could call it "history bathing"--a form of immersion not unlike forest bathing. It also reminds me of fishing, in that one casts different "baits", e.g. Oswald Veblen or JP Whiton Stuart, into the richly stocked waters of the web, then starts landing lunker after lunker. The sheer joy of making connections and finding meaning in lives made more profound by time is enough to satisfy. To forge the catch into narrative for others to read has pleasure, too, but any attempt to overcome entropy involves effort.

Still, I feel remiss to discover that it has been almost nine years since an email came out of the blue from a woman named Rebecca Martin. She was researching her ancestors, one of whom she had discovered had rented the cottage from 1933 to 1937. 

"My grandmother," she explained,  "lived in the farm house along with her parents and siblings during the 1930s. There's a story about Albert Einstein walking through the woods around the house and speaking to my great grandmother, who would feed him a sandwich and talk with him. She spoke German, so I'm guessing that if this story is true, he probably appreciated communicating with someone in his native language."

She later told me that her grandparents' names were Harry C. Emann and Claire M. Emann. The farmhouse she refers to is what we now call the Veblen Cottage. Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen bought the farmhouse and farm in 1936, apparently from the bank. According to Rebecca's timeline, the Emanns moved out the following year.

Reading Rebecca's email more closely, I realize that it was the great grandmother, not the grandmother Claire, who spoke in German with Einstein. The assumption has always been that the Veblens bought the cottage and farm, and would then have their friend Einstein come out to visit. But if Einstein's friendship with the great grandmother preceded the Veblens' purchase of the property, might it have been Einstein who told the Veblens about the place, which back then was out in the country, far off on the other side of town from where the Veblens lived on Battle Road? And might the great grandmother also have known Max Latterman, who by then was likely working for the Whiton-Stuarts next door, tending to their many horses? Max, too, was a German immigrant, who would continue caring for the property, and the farmhouse as well, after the Veblens bought the Whiton-Stuart's house and land in 1941. 

What we have, then, is the apparent connection between three German immigrants--Einstein, Claire Emann's mother, and Max Latterman--that may have influenced the beginnings of what is now Herrontown Woods. 

Toss the grandmother Clair's name into the waters of the internet and "Find a Grave" tells you her full name was Claire Magdelina McClure Emann, and that she was born October 23, 1906 and is buried in Fountain Lawn Memorial Park in Ewing. A 1998 article in Town Topics tells a bit about her life and family:
Claire Emann, 82, of Longwood, Fla., formerly of Princeton, died December 19 in a nursing home in Longwood Born in Trenton, she lived in Princeton most of her life before moving to Longwood 10 years ago. She was employed by Educational Testing Service, retiring as a supervisor after 20 years of service. Wife of the late Harry Emann, she is survived by three sons. William of Kingston, Walter of Princeton and John Emann of Flemington; two daughters. Ruth Rowley of Longwood, Fla , and Marion Martin of Orlando. Fla.; 19 grandchildren and 17 greatgrandchildren.
The Historical Society of Princeton's staff did some helpful research, finding the Emanns living (apparently renting) on Herrontown Road in 1936. We had hoped a historical address would be found, but the address was "RD" for Rural Delivery. 

Rebecca wrote to me in 2014 about how she feels about the farmhouse her ancestors called home: "It would indeed be a shame to lose it. I was able to visit that house in the spring ten years ago. It was boarded up and falling apart even then. It's too bad more people aren't interested in preserving it."

Well, nine years of persistence later, we do have more people interested in preserving it. FOHW's architects have carefully measured the cottage and with a structural engineer are developing designs for stabilizing it. We've been keeping the structure dry with tarps. Architectural drawings are helping us consider options for repurposing the farmhouse, whose farm so many years later is now a forest.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Found: Original Plant Inventory of Herrontown Woods

Occasionally, artifacts from the early days of Herrontown Woods come to light. 

Betty Horn, who has long taught a spring wildflowers course for the Adult School, and maintains the University's Rogers Bird Room, contacted me last month:

"Hi Steve,
I was at the University yesterday and came across two small metal boxes filled with index cards. They had “Herrontown woods” printed on the side and contained index cards listing plants alphabetically by Latin names.
I don’t know when they were made or who made them. If you would like them, please let me know."

She continued: "They were stored in an Eno Hall basement room known as "The Bird Room." They came to light when the Bird Collection was moved from Eno to Green Hall. They were probably in a niche along with other historical items (such as bird journals from W.E.D. Scott) and were put there when the collection was moved from Guyot to Eno. I think that was in the '70's." - Betty

The boxes are filled with cards, each with a plant name and nothing more. What finally occurred to us was that each plant had two cards--one with its common name, the other with the latin name, just like in the plant inventory that appears in the book about Herrontown Woods published in the early 1970s. The author, Richard Kramer, had done a study of Herrontown Woods for his doctoral dissertation at Rutgers. 

Here's the last page of the inventory in the book.

The index cards must have been the official inventory that was then transferred to the book. How they ended up at Princeton University's Eno Hall is not clear. 

Thanks to Betty for giving us this artifact from Herrontown Woods' early days.