Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Long-Awaited Foundation Repairs Now Complete

As 2023 draws to a close, it's time to celebrate a big step forward in the repair of Veblen House. A mason and his crew arrived last week to pour footings and underpin eroded areas of the house's foundation in the basement. 

Back in 2011, a detailed assessment of the Veblen House was conducted by a local architectural firm that noted, among other things, erosion beneath the chimney's foundation. Repair was characterized as "urgent." A cynic might say that the report, with its high calculated pricetag for restoring the house, was meant less to spur repair than to intimidate anyone wishing to take the project on. The report detailed all of the house's flaws, and none of its assets. Seeing promise where others saw only expense, we remained undaunted.

The sense of urgency was lessened slightly when I took a closer look under the chimney, and found that only a third of it had been undermined. 

Still, it was a great relief this past week to see the chimney, and a couple other spots in the house's foundation, at last properly underpinned with concrete. 
The cement arrived in a miniature cement truck, which promptly got stuck on ground softened by a heavy rain earlier in the week. Herrontown Woods was created by the Veblens specifically as a place to get away from motorized vehicles, so it's amusing to see how the land itself enforces their decree. 
The crew quickly adapted, carting the concrete down to the house in wheelbarrows.
Bucket after very heavy bucket of cement was handed down through the trapdoor in the kitchen to waiting hands in the basement,
where it was poured into moulds to form footings. Our desire to use Veblen House for events requires reinforcement of the already sturdy floors. 
The masons had to get creative where the footings intersected with existing structures.
Cutting into the basement floor for one of the footings revealed a drainage pipe running beneath the floor. This pipe may well connect to a series of wells outside. The Whiton-Stuarts, who built the house and lived in it for the first ten years before selling to the Veblens, had many horses. It's possible that seepage underneath the basement flows into wells that may at one time have provided drinking water for the horses
The masons reconnected the severed drainage pipe so that it can continue to help keep the basement dry.

Thanks goes to FOHW board member Scott Sillars, who was able to find a mason to do the work (we had been searching on and off for years), and to our supporters whose donations fund repairs.

The Hidden Veblen

When we formed the Friends of Herrontown Woods in 2013, the nature preserve the Veblen's had donated 56 years prior for public use had become overgrown, their house and cottage boarded up. The same could be said for Oswald's legacy, which was nowhere to be found in the halls of Fuld Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study. There are many examples of Oswald Veblen--his influence and sometimes his very existence--going unmentioned. Here, from the annals of conspicuous omissions, are a couple examples, found recently while researching how Einstein ended up living in Princeton for the last two decades of his life. 

The wikipedia page for the Institute for Advanced Study makes clear Veblen's profound influence:

The eminent topologist Oswald Veblen at Princeton University, who had long been trying to found a high-level research institute in mathematics, urged Flexner to locate the new institute near Princeton where it would be close to an existing center of learning and a world-class library. In 1932 Veblen resigned from Princeton and became the first professor in the new Institute for Advanced Study. He selected most of the original faculty and also helped the institute acquire land in Princeton for both the original facility and future expansion.

But as of this writing, in December, 2023, no mention of Veblen can be found in Einstein's wikipedia entry, an omission that becomes all the more conspicuous when he is excluded from the list of initial faculty members:

Another example of the "hidden Veblens" is the wikipedia page for Owen Willans Richardson, the Nobel Prize-winning brother-in-law of Oswald. The entry mentions one of Owen's sisters, but not Elizabeth and Oswald.

This entry I was able to fix. Einstein's wikipedia page has some protections that may make it harder to edit.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Veblen House and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

What are Donna Reed and James Stewart looking at in this scene from director Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life? What could elicit such looks of wonder and endearment?

Why, it's their dream home--a major fixer upper that hasn't been lived in for decades. The broken windows are reminiscent of what happened to Veblen House over decades of neglect, as is the love that the main characters George Bailey and especially Mary later apply to fixing it up as the movie progresses. And, as with George's guardian angel, who mingles with humanity seeking to earn his wings, the ways people contribute to the project at Herrontown Woods can make one feel like there are angels in our midst. But there's something else we noticed that the movie's fixer upper has in common with Veblen House: 
Zoom in and check out the balusters. 

I went back through photos of Veblen House from around 2008, when it had already been abandoned for ten years, and found a photo of the outdoor staircase we plan to rebuild. 

Was this architectural detail added by the Russian woodworker, said to have customized the house after it was moved to Princeton from Morristown, and where does its style hearken from?

Veblen House is no ordinary house, and Frank Capra was no ordinary movie director. Arriving in America from Italy at the age of six, he became the first in his family to go to college, earning a degree from Caltech in engineering in 1918. The engineering background gave him an advantage over other directors during the transition from silent movies to talkies. A recurring theme in his most well-known movies is the power of an individual to bring out the best in people. It takes a hero--someone endowed with steadfast love, courage, and a deep belief in community and human dignity--to overcome the worst impulses of humanity and mobilize our innate generosity towards one another. 

Writing this post, I realized that It's a Wonderful Life is an inverted form of Dickens' Christmas Carol. In Christmas Carol, it is the good will of the community that, along with major interventions by ghosts, ultimately releases the generosity latent behind Scrooge's entrenched greed. In Wonderful Life, it is the main character's devotion to giving and sacrifice that ultimately brings the community together in an outpouring of generosity. 

Oswald Veblen's life reads like a Capra movie. Through the first half of the 20th century, he devoted himself to bringing out the best in mathematicians and other scholars, by creating the circumstances--organizational, physical, and financial--within which they would have the freedom and resources to follow their curiosity and do their best work.

Political freedom is another key element in bringing out the best in people, so it's not surprising that Veblen and Capra sought to serve their country. In WWI, while Oswald Veblen was helping the war effort by applying mathematics to the improvement of artillery at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, second lieutenant Capra was teaching mathematics to artillerymen in San Francisco. 

In WWII, while Veblen was again in the military, coordinating scientific work to improve the accuracy of weaponry, Frank Capra also reenlisted, this time to work for Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. It was Marshall's vision to create films to explain to the troops "why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting." Capra created the series of films called "Why We Fight," which provided the philosophical foundation for the vast collective effort to defeat totalitarianism. 

Scientists like Veblen, and artists like Capra--patriots and heroes through the first half of the century--came under suspicion in post-war America, as the fear and repression they had long fought against took hold here at home. Both came under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee, because of the people they knew. The film industry and cultural mores were also changing, in ways Capra refused to accept and adapt to. He described the new paradigm as "Kill for thrill—shock! Shock! To hell with the good in man, Dredge up his evil—shock! Shock!" Meanwhile, prosperity-fueled development was consuming the rural lands in Princeton that the Veblens loved.

My respect and awe for Capra deepened when I found out he had produced a prescient film in 1958 called "The Unchained Goddess." About weather, it included a one minute synopsis of the threat posed by climate change. The movie uses animation reminiscent of his Why We Fight films. Instead of a map showing the U.S. being invaded by Nazis, the new invader is rising sea levels that could ultimately drown large swaths of the nation. America, having defeated totalitarianism abroad, was now threatened by a new invasion, partly self-inflicted, by "unwittingly changing the climate through the waste products of civilization." 

Unlike the great collective mobilization that brought victory in WWII, the country has shrugged off Capra's warnings about climate change, choosing instead to fight battles against other enemies, within or beyond our borders, real or illusory. Though It's a Wonderful Life has been described as "a saccharine apotheosis of private life and small town nostalgia," Capra's depiction of people as often their own worst enemy has relevance to the mounting political and environmental crises we now face. 

The movie's fixer-upper speaks as well to what we've found at Herrontown Woods, that a spirit of repair, whether of a traumatized nature or a neglected house, can lead to good things.