Letters to the editor about the Veblens and the Veblen House:
Veblen Began Process That Continues Today Through Open Space Movement
(Appeared in Town Topics, March 20, 2013)
For five years I’ve been alerting the Princeton community to the importance of the historic Veblen House, located on the edge of Herrontown Woods on the northeast side of town. Part of the estate of the world famous visionary and mathematician, Oswald Veblen, the house was donated to the county back in 1974 with the intention that it become a nature center, library, and museum. Instead, it was rented out for many years, then boarded up. Saving a historic public building is a bit like trying to save a hospitable climate. People think it’s a nice idea, but imagine it’s just too costly. After my appeals met with mostly blank stares and unreturned emails, I decided it would be more rewarding to document Veblen’s multifaceted contributions to Princeton and the world. As with a study of nature, the closer you look, the more you see.
Veblen’s legacy, like the house he and his wife left in the public trust, has long remained hidden. It runs like a deep river beneath many aspects of life in Princeton we now take for granted. A pre-eminent university, the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s long and cherished residency — Veblen played surprisingly instrumental roles in making these possible. His vision and influence were also fundamental in Princeton’s contributions to early computer development.
A recurrent feature of Veblen’s legacy is his capacity to bring disconnected entities together to create greater meaning. The layout of Jones Hall on the Princeton University campus was designed by Veblen to bring mathematicians together to share ideas. The Institute, too, achieved this goal on a larger scale, expedited by the tradition of afternoon tea begun by the Veblens. Whether recruiting mathematicians for the university, the Institute, or to help improve ballistics during the World Wars, Veblen displayed an uncanny eye for talent. With Norwegian and Midwestern pioneer roots, Veblen himself combined extraordinary intellect with a love of hands-on physical work. A wedding of Old and New World can be seen both in the architectural elements of the Veblens’ house and in their marriage — Elizabeth having been born in England.
All this “bringing together” can also be experienced when walking the trails of Princeton’s many nature preserves. A nature lover, Veblen served as “re-aggregator” of open space, consolidating small parcels in the 1930s with the intention of preserving large tracts — both at Herrontown Woods and the Institute Woods — and in that sense he began the process that continues today through Princeton’s open space movement. Herrontown Woods, donated by the Veblens in 1957, was Princeton’s first dedicated preserve. Though the Veblen House — a deep legacy next to a deep woods — remains neglected by the powers that be, Veblen’s founding efforts to mend pieces of land back together will be explored in a talk by author George Dyson on March 21 at 7 pm, hosted by D&R Greenway.
In a time marked by polarization and disconnection, both locally and nationally, Veblen’s legacy speaks to unity and a focus on the greater good. The house (VeblenHouse.org) and accompanying woodlands can and should serve as a living portal for that legacy.
WHO IS OSWALD VEBLEN? IMAGINE PRINCETON WITHOUT THE IAS, EINSTEIN, HERRONTOWN WOODS
(A version of this letter appeared in the Town Topics, Feb. 6, 2013)
Princetonians have two opportunities coming up to learn about one of Princeton's early visionaries. The Veblen name is most commonly associated with Thorstein Veblen, the famous economist and social critic. But his nephew Oswald's legacy shines as bright, extending beyond the world of ideas and taking multiple physical forms across our fair town.
Who is Oswald Veblen? Well, imagine Princeton without the Institute for Advanced Study, Albert Einstein's long residency, the Institute Woods and Herrontown Woods. Veblen's vision, initiative and persistence played an instrumental role in making all of these possible.
Called a "woodchopping professor" of mathematics, he combined a midwesterner's bucolic sensibilities and pioneer spirit with the European heritage of his ancestors and his English wife Elizabeth. This combination can be seen in the many European scholars he helped bring to America during the Nazi rise to power, his innovative influence on academia, military ballistics and early computer development, and the hundreds of acres of Princeton's woodlands he worked to spare from development.
This combination, too, can be seen in the house and farm cottage he and Elizabeth donated to the county, which now stand boarded up at the edge of Herrontown Woods. The 1920s prefab house has European touches in its balconies, woodwork and woodland setting. The farmstead is a remnant of the 19th century microfarms once common along the eastern Princeton Ridge.
This Sunday at 11am, as part of the Princeton Public Library's Environmental Film Festival, I'll present a portrait of Veblen's multifaceted legacy, and discuss efforts to save the house and farmstead they left in the public trust. More info on the film festival's last weekend of films can be found at princetonlibrary.org, and additional info on Veblen is at VeblenHouse.org.
In addition, the Institute for Advanced Study is currently hosting an exhibit on Veblen's legacy at their archive's reading room (library.ias.edu/archives).
LOST BOOKS, AND THE VEBLENS' WISH FOR A MUSEUM AND LIBRARY
One quality found in many Princetonians is a capacity to see opportunity in unlikely places. This is evident to anyone who has observed how quickly items disappear from the curb. Put an old Bentwood chair out, and chances are someone will come along with a dream of restoring it. And you never know. It might be a chair Albert Einstein once sat in.
A couple months back, a house near ours was looking deserted. A dumpster finally appeared and I noticed among the discards some wood that would be perfect for a backyard project. I knocked on the door and got permission to take anything I wanted. Days later, I stopped by again and noticed some old science books, mostly physics. I took one about Einstein, intending to return later for a closer look.
The next morning, the dumpster was gone. Again I knocked, and learned that this unassuming house I walk by every day had been the home of no less than Julian Bigelow, chief engineer at the Institute for Advanced Study for von Neumann's 1940s project to build one of the world's first computers.
Though Bigelow's papers and some selected books will end up in various archives and a Bryn Mawr sale, 1000s of books were thrown out after unsuccessful efforts to find them a home. I'll always wonder what books slipped away just out of reach.
The loss had particular poignancy for me because I know a bookshelf where they might have been perfect, in the former house of the great mathematician Oswald Veblen out in Herrontown Woods.
Though Veblen's uncle Thorstein is better known, Oswald may have left the greater mark. His vision and influence were instrumental in building the Princeton U. math department into a powerhouse, designing Old Fine Hall, and bringing the Institute, and Albert Einstein, to town.
We also owe him gratitude for hundreds of acres of greenspace in town. The Institute Woods and Herrontown Woods would likely not have been preserved if not for Veblen's influence, generosity, and love of nature.
But Veblen's contributions to the world we now inhabit extend beyond Princeton. Though most of Bigelow's books were lost, they led me to recent writings by George Dyson (Turing's Cathedral) and Jon Edwards. Therein lie descriptions of Veblen's role in helping get German math and physics scholars out of Germany before World War II, "undoubtedly delaying the development of Hitler's bomb." His work on ballistics during the world wars increased the accuracy of Allied artillery and stirred early interest in developing machines to expedite the necessary trajectory computations. Dyson devotes a chapter of his book to Veblen's role in spurring and facilitating development of the computers we use today.
All of which brings us back to those empty bookshelves in a boarded up house in Herrontown Woods. When Veblen died in 1960, after a life of transformative service to university, Institute, town, nation and world, he left behind one wish for that house--that it be made into a library and museum. That wish remains ungranted, as time inches the neglected county-owned house and nearby farmstead towards demolition.
A citizens group has submitted a proposal to restore the buildings and put them to public uses, but like the dam restorations at Mountain Lakes, all depends on funding.
Lest more books slip needlessly into the abyss, I encourage anyone seeking a good home for books related to the Veblens and other Institute luminaries to contact me (609.252.0724). If individuals and local institutions come forward to grant the Veblens' dying wish, we'll have some fine bookshelves to put them on.
PI DAY AND THE VEBLEN FARMSTEAD, March, 2011
As Princeton celebrates Einstein's birthday with various permutations of pi(e), both edible and mathematical, it's worth remembering a close associate of Einstein's, Oswald Veblen, who can be found standing alongside Einstein on the cover of the new book, The Institute for Advanced Study.
As a mathematician who joined the Princeton University's faculty in 1905, Veblen was a visionary who had much to do with bringing the Institute, and Einstein, to Princeton. He largely designed the original Fine Hall, where Einstein first had an office. A "woodchopping" professor who loved the woods, Veblen and his wife Elizabeth later donated nearly 100 acres of farmstead and forest for preservation in eastern Princeton--what is now known as Herrontown Woods.
Though Einstein's Princeton home is a private residence, the Veblen house and cottage at the edge of Herrontown Woods are publicly owned and have long awaited a public purpose. Einstein and other great intellectuals that Veblen helped attract to Princeton were frequent visitors there. Given the condition of the buildings, this year will likely determine their fate.
A case can be made, given the extraordinary contributions the Veblens made to the Princeton community, that we owe to them and to ourselves a better fate than to see their historic farmstead torn down. The farmstead has several things going for it, including its central location along an extraordinary corridor of greenspace extending from the Princeton Ridge at Bunn Drive down to River Road. Just as the Veblen legacy brings together a love of intellect, nature and physical work, the farmstead itself stands at the border between preserved woodland and the tradition of microfarming once common in eastern Princeton. Surely we can wed these enduring themes to more recent movements of sustainability, biodiversity and local food, and put the farmstead to creative reuse.