May 24, 2017

Fate of Veblen Houses in Herrontown Woods Remains Uncertain as Conflict Continues

The Veblen house and cottage in the Herrontown Woods nature preserve remain on the Mercer County agenda for demolition despite a positive meeting last week between Princeton officials and the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) preservation group, which is seeking to take over the property and make needed repairs.

“Everybody on Council is looking for some sort of way forward that makes sense and that helps enhance the park,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. “I think we’re getting closer. I’m optimistic we can find a way forward.”

FOHW President Steve Hiltner, who, along with members of his board, met with the mayor, Council member Jo Butler, and the town management staff, also expressed optimism, describing “a very heartening discussion.”

Mercer County, however, which owns the houses and 82 acres which were donated decades ago by renowned mathematician Oscar Veblen and his wife, is less optimistic about the future prospects for the houses, which it reports as being in poor condition and too expensive to repair.

“There is no new news to report,” stated Mercer County Communications Director Julie Willmot, reporting on behalf of County Executive Brian Hughes. Claiming inadequate planning and fundraising, the County had previously rejected a proposal from FOHW to repair and maintain the buildings.

Mr. Hiltner hopes that the town’s support will help the FOHW cause. “We want very much to work in a constructive, collaborative way with local governments. We’re grateful for the broad public support the community is showing, particularly in recent weeks as we’ve had to live with uncertainty day to day as to the Veblen buildings’ fate.“

Mr. Hiltner noted that the FOHW has received contributions and pledges of $55,000 so far, and has devoted thousands of hours over the last four years to restoring and maintaining trails at Herrontown Woods.

Ms. Lempert expressed her appreciation to the FOHW group, pointing out, “they’ve done a lot of amazing work on the trails and in the park. There’s a lot of great energy there.”

In pressing his case for the FOHW to take ownership and responsibility for the buildings, Mr. Hiltner said, “When the county turned management of the nature preserve (not the buildings) over to Princeton in 2011, it stipulated that the town ‘manage and monitor Herrontown Woods in accordance with the terms and conditions of the deed of gift from Elizabeth and Oswald Veblen and the last will and testament of Elizabeth Veblen.’ Elizabeth’s will also states that the Veblen House is to be a ‘library and museum.’ By restoring and maintaining trails on 140 acres, the FOHW has stepped forward and taken the Veblen’s deed and will seriously, and we are seeking a green light from the county to do the same for the buildings.”