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!