November 16, 2022

Town Agrees To Asbestos Removal at Veblen House

By Donald Gilpin

At its Monday, November 14 meeting Princeton Council passed unanimously a resolution authorizing payment of up to $43,850 to complete an asbestos abatement project at the Veblen House in Herrontown Woods.

“This is a big step ahead for us,” said Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) Board President Stephen Hiltner, noting the assistance of town officials led by Municipal Open Space Manager Cindy Taylor, as well as Land Use Engineer Jim Purcell and Deputy Administrator and Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton.

“They’ve been great to work with as we prepare for the removal, protecting the house’s custom woodwork and identifying the location of asbestos-coated heat ducts in the walls,” Hiltner added.

In 2017 Mercer County, which owned the Veblen property, was planning to demolish the buildings at Herrontown Woods, but Hiltner and the FOHW were able to persuade the town to take ownership of Herrontown Woods along with $100,000 that would be held by the town in case demolition became necessary in the future.

“The town is expecting us to raise all funds needed to repair and repurpose the buildings, but because asbestos would need to be removed even if the Veblen House were to be demolished, the town has agreed to pay for the removal,” Hiltner said.

He continued, “The removal of the asbestos will create a clean slate for us to begin renovations. We’re grateful to the town for helping us with all of this.”

Herrontown Woods, “Princeton’s first and most whimsical nature preserve,” as described on its website, is located on land donated by famed Princeton University mathematician and Institute for Advanced Study co-founder Oswald Veblen (1880-1960) and his wife Elizabeth in 1957. It includes almost 100 acres as well as the deteriorating Veblen House, Cottage, and a barn.

FOHW is planning to create a gathering space for meetings and events on the first floor of the house, and to renovate the upstairs for offices and a caretaker’s residence. Plans for the cottage are less definite, but Hiltner noted that, having started out as an 1875 small landholder’s farmhouse, it should “be reflective of a simpler lifestyle.”

He added, “It was used by Veblen as a study, with a wood stove, and Einstein and other friends would come by sometimes. We’d like the cottage to be a place for learning about nature, about the Veblens, and about the small landholder culture of the Princeton Ridge.”

Hiltner pointed out that FOHW has also been working closely with the town on invasive species control. Over the past few years the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team, hired by the town, has been working to diminish a two-acre clone of wisteria that has been killing trees. FOHW board member Inge Regan recently initiated an Invasive Species of the Month Club to combat invasive species in Herrontown Woods.

“The idea is that volunteers unfamiliar with plants need only be able to identify one invasive at a time,” said Hiltner. “Their first project was to cut winged euonymus to restore vistas along the Red Trail. In late October they switched to oriental photinia, because it’s easy to identify by its fall color. This past Sunday we began work to cut the portions of the giant wisteria clone that the town’s contractors had not had time to reach. One volunteer in particular, Bill Jemas, recently retired, has been going after the wisteria with particular zeal.”

Hiltner noted that FOHW, with the help of town arborist Taylor Sapudar, had also completed major work in removal of fallen or dead trees, including two giant dead ash trees that were threatening the little red barn next to the Veblen Cottage.