May 3, 2017

Resistance Grows as Houses Face Demolition

The future of the Veblen house and cottage in the Herrontown Woods nature preserve remains in doubt, as the Mercer County Recreation Commission prepares for demolition and the Princeton-based Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) continues to seek support from the Town Council and others to take over the property and make needed repairs.

Mercer County, owner of the houses and 82 acres of land that were donated decades ago by renowned mathematician Oscar Veblen and his wife, is concerned about the condition of the houses and the cost of repair, and dubious about their historical value. “The county has no interest in rehabilitating the buildings using county funds,” said freeholder Andrew Koontz. “The buildings continue to deteriorate and they remain a liability. Proceeding with demolition would be our only option.”

County Director of Communications Julie Willmot, writing on behalf of County Executive Brian Hughes, cited a cost estimate between $600,000 and $900,000 to fully rehabilitate the buildings and make them accessible to the public. She noted that the county had considered a proposal from FOHW to repair and maintain the buildings, but claimed that “the planning and fundraising that have been done have fallen far short of what is necessary for the county to allow work.”

Though acknowledging that the people who lived in and visited the buildings are important historical figures, she stated that the county does not deem the structures themselves to have historic value and that the county was unwilling to set the precedent of transferring public lands to a nonprofit organization.

Claiming a failure of communication and clash of perspectives between the county and the town of Princeton, Stephen Hiltner, who founded FOHW three years ago, hopes to save the Veblen houses and marshal the resources of the FOHW to restore the buildings and manage the Herrontown Woods property.

“There’s a real gulf between Princeton’s perspective and the county’s perspective on Herrontown Woods,” he said.

Insisting that the two buildings are “of national historic merit” and that the refurbishing costs, with help from volunteers, would be only a fraction of the county’s estimate, Mr. Hiltner wrote in a letter in the Town Topics Mailbox last week that FOHW has been maintaining and improving the trails and habitat of Herrontown Woods, leading nature walks, and partnering with nearby schools over the past four years, and would be more than up to the task of repairing the Veblen houses.

“FOHW’s renovation of Herrontown Woods has been the story of the Little Nonprofit That Could,” the letter signed by 72 supporters stated. “Where big budgets balked, a mix of can-do spirit, skill, and sweat equity have succeeded …. The paralyzing concerns over cost and liability can be overcome by allowing skilled and resourceful volunteers to do much of the work.”

Mr. Hiltner discussed the importance of Mr. Veblen and the passions that drove him. “The idea of demolishing his house completely contradicts Veblen’s legacy,” Mr. Hiltner said. “Veblen was passionate about math, but also passionate about nature and architecture. He convinced the Institute for Advanced Study to build its actual location in Princeton to get the synergy with Princeton University. He also worked with the Institute to assemble the many acres that became the Institute Woods.”

In addition to differences of opinion on the historic value of the houses and the costs and methods of repair, Mr. Hiltner also claimed communication failures on the part of the county. He cited a meeting with Mr. Hughes in December 2013 where the county executive offered to transfer about 15 acres plus the house and cottage to FOHW if they could put together a valid non-profit and come up with a proposal. “It’s taken us three years to do it, but they specified no deadline and no specific financial figure,” Mr. Hiltner said.

After being caught by surprise last December when the Mercer County Parks Commission announced that they were spending $23,000 to prepare for demolition, the FOHW moved into high gear and officially submitted its proposal on February 6.

The county, however, has expressed its intention to proceed with demolition, and last Monday FOHW went to the Princeton Council, which, Mr. Hiltner noted, was supportive. Mayor Liz Lempert pointed out that the issue has not been on the Council’s formal agenda, and the Council has not taken any action.

“We’re interested in seeing what sort of resolution the town can put together,” Mr. Hiltner said. “We’re reaching out to Council members, hoping for their support.”

He emphasized that FOHW was not seeking funding from either the town or county. “I like the idea of working collaboratively with the town, but we’re not asking the town or county to spend money on this.”

He continued, “We have a lot to offer the county. We’re ground-truthing the park all the time. We’re there. Our understanding of the Herrontown Woods has come over time. We’ve learned over time what the trails need. I wish the county would be more open to communication.”

In their response to emails concerning the Veblen buildings, Ms. Willmot and Mr. Hughes noted that “the county is willing to install appropriate interpretive signage to commemorate Mr. Veblen, Albert Einstein and their work, and would install trail connections that would give visitors an understanding of the importance of the site.” They added that the garage adjacent to the house would remain “for the town’s use and for the Friends’ use at Princeton’s discretion.”

FOHW still remains hopeful, however, that it can prevail upon county authorities to find a way for the Veblen house and cottage to remain along with the garage. “After years of devoted service to town and county,” FOHW’s Mailbox letter concluded, “the Little Nonprofit That Could deserves a chance to save the cultural soul of Herrontown Woods.”