January 1, 2020

FOHW Volunteers Look Forward to Veblen Property Lease

VEBLEN HOUSE: Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) plans to lease from the town of Princeton the house and surrounding properties where the mathematician Oscar Veblen lived, took walks in the woods, and met with Albert Einstein. FOHW looks forward to ongoing stewardship of the land and restoration work on the buildings. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Herrontown Woods)

By Donald Gilpin

Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the trails, history, and flora of Herrontown Woods and to honoring the legacy of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, is looking forward to early 2020 ratification of a lease agreement negotiated with the town of Princeton.

Since 2013 FOHW has been caring for about 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, the first dedicated nature preserve in Princeton “and apparently in Mercer County as well,” according to FOHW president Steve Hiltner, who is a botanist and naturalist.

With a formal lease, Hiltner said, FOHW will be able to apply for grants, broaden its contributor base, and hire workers to complete needed repairs on the Veblen House and Cottage. “The cottage is envisioned as a nature center,” Hiltner said. “That’s where Einstein and Veblen would have hung out on a Saturday afternoon.” Other structures on the property include a barn, a corn crib, and a garage.

Hiltner continued, “The house and cottage, in addition to being the only infrastructure available to serve open space in eastern Princeton, provide a broad profile of cultural history from the early 20th century, from the hardscrabble farmers who built the cottage to the economic and intellectual elite of the Whiton-Stuarts and the Veblens. Tying it all together is Oswald Veblen, the founding faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, who loved both intellectual endeavors and outdoor work.”

Highlights of 2019 for FOHW included construction of a new trail through 7.5 acres of sloping woodland donated to Princeton in 2018; many trail improvements; expansion of a botanical garden with 100 native plant species; collaboration with the town on control of invasive species; working to keep buildings secure and dry; and evaluating the structures in preparation to begin repairs in 2020.

In addition, FOHW enlisted Girl Scout Cadette Troop 72905 to install interpretive signage, and conducted education and outreach programs through the Princeton Public Library, local schools, websites, and regular nature walks led by area naturalists.   

In 2017 Mercer County transferred ownership of the Veblen property to the town of Princeton, resolving years of discussion about the fate of the land and buildings, which were given to the county by the Veblens in 1957 and 1974. In addition to his own work in mathematics, Veblen has been acclaimed for saving lives and careers in bringing the Institute for Advanced Study to Princeton, helping to make the United States ascendant in the world of mathematics, and initiating the open space movement in Princeton.

When the town took ownership 18 months ago, Mayor Liz Lempert described Herrontown Woods as “one of the jewels of Princeton’s park system,” which “had gone mostly untended for decades. We’re very fortunate to have the enthusiastic volunteers of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, who have already done extensive and exceptional maintenance work on the network of trails and stream crossings.”

In 2020, the first year of the anticipated lease agreement, Hiltner said, the town wants FOHW to put together a master plan, proposing a team of architects and builders. FOHW has funds and is working towards its initial goal of raising $100,000 to stabilize the structures and to complete work to weatherize the buildings and make small repairs. 

Recently a number of skilled workers have offered to help, Hiltner added, as the FOHW continues to work on its master plan vision for the property.

“We’ve come to treasure being a part of Veblen’s legacy, and we want to tell people about it and about what one person can do,” Hiltner said. “Veblen saw the connections between geometry and woodland trails, between intellect and nature.”

Hiltner went on to point out that the stream in Herrontown Woods supplies clean water to Carnegie Lake and the Millstone River, the main source of Princeton’s drinking water. “There’s also the beauty of the landscape, rising to the ridge, with streams and trees intertwined with boulders,” he said.