Thursday, August 25, 2016

Herrontown Woods Trail Update

Volunteers with our nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, have been doing lots of trail work this summer. One initiative, primarily being carried out by Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, is installing a new, simpler color scheme that will make the trails easier to follow. The red trail loop will now begin and end at the park's main parking lot off of Snowden Lane, and a yellow trail will form an inner loop featuring the boulder field, quarry site, and 19th century farmstead. The yellow trail is now completely marked, and a couple redundant connector trails have been closed off. Sticking with our theme of using found materials, trail markers are homemade.


Another initiative is to reduce trail erosion. With climate change bringing more intense storms, particularly to the northeastern U.S., trails are more frequently turning into streams during heavy rains. Water bars are a way of directing water off trail.

New volunteer, Glenn Ferguson (in photo), helped install the first two waterbars yesterday, between the Veblen House and cottage, using stone donated by a Herrontown neighbor. Glenn is an environmental studies major who discovered the preserve a year or two ago, and liked it so much he contacted us wanting to help out. He mentioned that the Veblen cottage reminds him of cottages he's seen in Batsto, the historic town in the Pine Barrens, which also dates back to the 19th century.

We continue to note how important it is, while doing trail maintenance, not to disturb some of the rarer native wildflowers that grow along the trail edges, e.g. wild comfrey. Trail widening can inadvertently harm wildflowers adapted to the special conditions along the trails' edge.

Whether you want a relaxing walk or a workout, come join us to walk the trails of Princeton's first nature preserve, where Veblen, Einstein and others would find inspiration and room for their thoughts to roam.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bringing Back a Lost Tree Species--the Butternut


(Originally posted at FOHW.org, the official website for Friends of Herrontown Woods)

In recent years, the Friends of Herrontown Woods has teamed up with local tree experts to bring back a little known and seldom seen native tree called the butternut. Also called the white walnut, and sporting the scientific name Juglans cinerea, its numbers have dwindled over the past fifty years due to an introduced fungus that causes canker. Just a few persist in Princeton, discovered by Bill Sachs and arborist Bob Wells. This young butternut was grown by Bill Sachs from locally collected nuts, and planted by FOHW volunteers in a clearing near Veblen House.


Maybe the local deer get their news on the internet, because soon after this butternut's photo appeared in a blogpost about Herrontown Woods, its leaves disappeared, prompting us to extend the fencing higher around the tree. Persistence and followup are everything.

These are the new shoots now protected by the fencing. Another year or two and the tree will be tall enough to survive without protection.

When Bob Wells found a butternut growing near Stone Hill Church, a neighbor of Herrontown Woods, FOHW got permission to plant a couple young butternuts near it, to provide cross fertilization. Those saplings, too, would not survive without followup, and the followup probably wouldn't happen if this wasn't a labor of love, which in this case describes whatever makes one think to take a look and see how they're doing. Leaves eaten but stem still alive.

Some chickenwire laying on the ground nearby proved handy for protecting the resprouts.

With four young butternuts at Veblen House, two in Autumn Hill reservation, two at Stone Hill Church, six at Mountain Lakes, and several more growing at TRI and in Harrison Street Park (Clifford Zink being the catalyst there), our native butternut stands a chance of making a comeback in Princeton.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Oswald Veblen Turns 136

It being Oswald Veblen's birthday today, June 24, and it being summer, it seems a good time to show some photos of where the Veblens would likely be this time of year, at their cottage in Brooklin, Maine. These photos, sent to us by the super helpful staff at the IAS archives, were probably taken by Oswald himself, as he became interested in photography later in life. The first photo, on the porch of their cabin, could be a stage set, with Elizabeth (May) Veblen dressed in white to stand out. Someone out there probably knows who the others are. Tea was central to the Veblen lifestyle, and through the Veblens became integrated into faculty life at the Princeton math department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

Their Maine cabin had a lot of charm, kept in what appears to be an informal, rustic state,


with a view out over Naskeag Bay from the upper balcony.


A large fireplace, books, comfortable chairs, an ocean breeze--must have been a peaceful respite from academic life.


Each item in these photos surely has a story behind it.


Much like the corridor between the Veblen House and cottage in Princeton, there was a verdant corridor between their Maine cottage and boathouse.


The boathouse opened out to the bay.


And the bay opened out to the ocean.



Veblen grew up in the midwest, but his career took him to Europe many times. He must have been comfortable spending his summers on the edge of America, looking out towards Europe, occupying the borderlands between Old World and New--a recurrent theme in his career and marriage.

Thanks to the IAS for these photos: Oswald Veblen photographer.  Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen Papers and Photographs.  From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Whiton-Stuart's Last Years, in California


On a recent family trip, we happened to go by San Luis Obispo in California, where the builder of Veblen House lived the last two years of his life. Though he and his wife Mary led a well-to-do, peripatetic life that we've thus far traced from Manhattan to Morristown to Bridgeport, CT, to Tuxedo Park, NY, to Princeton in the 1930s, and even a stint on a cattle farm in Prescott, AZ, I had been surprised to learn of the move to California for Jesse's last days.

Why do the Whiton-Stuarts matter if the house is named after the great mathematician, Oswald Veblen? There's plenty in the Whiton-Stuart story to feed curiosity--their lineage, aristocratic upbringing, dropping out of Harvard to travel the world, the mix of big city culture and outdoorsmanship, the 1920s high society life they passed along to their children, followed by what seems like a fading back into anonymity. To research their lives is to better understand the Veblen House's origins and logic, and the era in which it was built.

Turns out that the house the Whiton-Stuarts lived in for the last two years of Jesse's life still exists. NY Historical Society and the History Center of SLO County pointed to this house, 1236 Palm Street. I didn't even notice the palm tree until I looked back at the photo.


Here's the view that the Whiton-Stuarts would have had from their porch as Jesse fought a losing battle with leukemia.

The house is now a rental, like some others along the street, serving in part the students and faculty at nearby California Polytechnic State University--CalPoly for short. I knocked on some doors along the street, looking for anyone who might have remembered them from 1950, and found one possible lead.

There are a lot of mysteries here. Why did they choose San Luis Obispo? (The "s" in Luis is pronounced. To the victor belongs the pronunciation.) One explanation came from the History Center:
"My guess is that J.P. Stuart chose to live in SLO because it was reasonably close to his son and had an equitable climate with doctors and hospitals nearby. I find it hard to believe that Stuart would move to SLO in 1950 because one of the local doctors had a reputation as a specialist. 
Shandon was (and is) a tiny village with few amenities, no doctors and the worst climate in SLO County. It is about 50 miles from SLO."
Shandon is where their son Robert lived. Given all his parents' wealth, it seems odd that he'd choose to live in a tiny village up in the hills with whatever passes in California for a poor climate. Sounds reclusive.


The Whiton-Stuarts might have shared the SLO train station with William Randolph Hearst, but by 1948 he had left his Hearst Castle up the coast in San Simeon to seek better medical care. Though the Whiton-Stuarts socialized with many among Manhattan's high society, there's no evidence they knew Hearst during his many years in NY.

The station looked much the same in this photo taken when it replaced an older structure, in 1942.

I like this photo from 1938, looking like a movie set.

One other mystery is where J.P. Stuart was buried. The county records show he was buried in Atascadero Cemetery, but the cemetery has no record of that. (photo from the cemetery's website)

The SLO County Library sent me his obituary. It claims he was a graduate of Harvard and Williams, but it might be truer to say that he stopped in now and then for some classes, mostly math.

Death: Sept. 16, 1950

J.P.W. Stuart 
Taken by Death

Jesse P. W. Stuart, 73, resident of San Luis Obispo for the past two years and a native of Jersey City, N.J. died Saturday evening in a San Luis Obispo hospital following a long illness

Mr. Stuart, a graduate of Harvard and Williams universities, was a retired real estate man with offices formerly in New York City.

He is survived by his wife, Mrs. Mary Stuart of San Luis Obispo; a son, Robert Stuart of Shandon; and a daughter, Mrs. Nelson Olcatt of New York City. 

Private funeral services were held this afternoon in the Palmer-Waters chapel with the Rev. Leroy Perason, pastor of the Grace Tabernacle, officiating.

Cremation followed the services.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Restoring Spring Flora at Veblen House


The first iris opened last week, a vestige of Elizabeth Veblen's english garden. Photos from the 1950s, recently found at the Institute for Advanced Study archives, show that the garden completely encircled the house in a broad oval complete with split rail fence, as if the house were enclosed in a horse corral. The photos, selected from a large box of slides by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Victoria Floor, and then digitized by IAS archives staff, show the Veblen House grounds from many angles, and will greatly facilitate restoration of the gardens.

Farther down the slope, the pawpaws planted by volunteers during a new years weekend planting party are beginning to grow, protected from deer browse.

FOHW board members Kurt and Sally Tazelaar cleared this area of multiflora rose, allowing native sedges to rebound. The fallen tree is a black locust, possibly planted long ago to create a grove from which their rot-resistant wood could be harvested for fenceposts.

Also growing in this field are green-fringed orchids, many of which we're protecting from the deer and mowing crews.


Whether it's the buildings or the land the Veblens left behind, the aim is to appreciate and nurture what remains.

For more on this spring's flora along the trails in Herrontown Woods, follow this link.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ramanujan, Veblen, and Chandrasekhar: After seeing "The Man Who Knew Infinity"


A movie showing in town, "The Man Who Knew Infinity" (trailer here), tells the story of a brilliant but little known Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Growing up in India, in poverty and with little formal training, he produced a prodigious body of original, unconventional work that ultimately came to light through his persistent efforts to reach out to British mathematicians. Of those he sent excerpts of his work to, only G.H. Hardy of Trinity College, Cambridge, responded, in 1913. A collaboration ensued, with Ramanujan moving to England.

The movie begins with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who is one of the characters: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—"

There are multiple tensions in the movie: atheism and belief in God, the skepticism of the British mathematicians, racial and institutional prejudice, Hardy's attempts to steer Ramanujan's intuitive explorations of the infinite towards the tedious, earthbound necessity of proofs, the long-distance love for his wife left behind in India, his battles with disease.

Ramanujan was a contemporary of Oswald Veblen, born seven years later, in 1887. Both can be found in descriptions of the "Greatest Mathematicians born between 1870 and 1939 A.D." Though it's not clear if the two ever met, there are several connections between Veblen and the British mathematicians portrayed in the movie. One can find, in the google book "Ramanujan: Letters and Commentary" and elsewhere, that G.H. Hardy exchanged places with Veblen during the year 1928-29, with Hardy coming to Princeton and Veblen spending a year at Cambridge. Though Hardy was not enamored of the study of ballistics, both Veblen and Hardy's close colleague, John Littlewood, joined the military during WW I, in Britain and the U.S., respectively, to contribute their mathematical expertise to improving ballistics. An interesting article describes Veblen's leading role in bringing a group of mathematicians together at Aberdeen Proving Grounds to work on ballistics. As important as any contribution made to ballistics, the gathering of mathematical minds at Aberdeen "created a community out of a generation of mathematicians" that influenced many of their careers. (Another potentially interesting article encountered is Placing World War I in the History of Mathematics.)

The physical link between mathematics and the human and natural gardens at Veblen House and Herrontown Woods is echoed in IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson's metaphorical praise at the 1987 centenary conference celebrating Ramanujan's contributions to mathematics. From the NY Times:
"Such mathematics has helped drive one of the major new conceptions of theoretical physics, superstring theory, as the physicist Freeman Dyson told a Ramanujan conference last month. 'As pure mathematics, it is as beautiful as any of the other flowers that grew from seeds that ripened in Ramanujan's garden.'"


In a personal aside, Ramanujan's origins reminded me of another Indian, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics. He was a colleague of my father's at Yerkes Observatory (the two furthest left in the photo). I remember reading with some surprise, having always framed discrimination in terms of black and white, that Chandra also was the victim of racial prejudice during his long career in England and the U.S.. A look into his biography shows some parallels with Ramanujan. Chandra also studied in Madras, two decades after Ramanujan, and followed the same path to Trinity College in Cambridge, with similarly dramatic results, both in extraordinary contributions and cultural tensions. A 2005 article in the Guardian, Battle for the Black Hole, describes the mistreatment Chandrasekhar is said to have endured, resulting in lasting trauma and a 40 year delay in the recognition he so deserved for his discoveries. Third from the right in the photo appears to be Gerard Kuiper, whose research supported Chandra's theories as far back as 1935. The article says Chandrasekhar's discovery was finally vindicated with the discovery of an x-ray source, Cygnus X-1, in 1972. I remember my father being very involved in studying x-ray sources at that time, specifically Sco X-1, organizing simultaneous observations around the world. Kuiper--fun fact here--was Carl Sagan's doctoral advisor at U. of Chicago.

Additional reading shows that Chandrasekhar was greatly inspired by the career of Ramanujan, and is responsible for having later tracked down the only adequate photo of the great mathematician, taken for the passport prior to his return to India from Great Britain. It's the photo above and at the end of the movie.

No clear connection between Chandra and Veblen has yet emerged, though they must have encountered each other at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where they both served during WW II along with Von Neumann and others. Both may have seen the possibilities for their own careers through their illustrious uncles, C.V. Raman and Thorstein Veblen. Raman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics. 

Update: In the original post here, I told a story of my parents taking me to dinner at the Chandrasekhars', and how I had been so overwhelmed by the smell of spices spilling out the doorway that I couldn't even enter, and spent the evening outside on the porch, working on an Around the World trick with my yoyo, while the more worldly experience of Indian cooking was going on upstairs. My older siblings tell me that the host was an Indian grad student at Yerkes, not Chandra, who with his wife lived not in town but in a house overlooking Lake Geneva.

My siblings offered some surely more accurate Chandra stories of their own. One offers insight into the sort of departmental politics that can arise out of having so many high-achieving scholars packed into a small community like Yerkes Observatory. Due to a misunderstanding created by another colleague, the department chair was keeping my father's salary low and refusing to promote him to full professor. Suddenly, my father started getting raises. Turned out that Chandra had persuaded the department chair that my father deserved better. 

Chandra dressed impeccably in British formal attire, and his wife, Lalitha (which my siblings pronounce like "Lolita"), wore traditional saris that must have seemed extraordinary in small town Wisconsin.

Another story, which can be obliquely tied to Veblen's ballistics work, involved a game I would play on the observatory grounds, in which I would see how few strokes it took to hit a golf ball all the way around the massive building. It was a challenge to send the ball flying over or inbetween trees, and there were a few times when imperfect execution sent the ball caroming off of the building's tan brick walls. Incredibly, no windows ever got broken in the process. One day, according to my brother, Chandra was passing by on his way home and stopped to talk to me, not to question my dubious pursuits but to explain the purpose of the dimples on the golf ball. Maybe his study of the flow of electromagnetic particles offered insight into how air flows around a golf ball.

In a third story, connected somewhat to Veblen's ballistics and early computer work, Chandra is said to have used top performing female students at my small-town high school in Williams Bay as an early form of "computer", to "calculate immensely difficult mathematical equations entirely by long hand". Based on that experience, he later recommended that female calculators be used to speed up aspects of the Manhattan Project. My sister remembers a Yerkes staff member, Irene Hansen, doing calculations with the aid of a small typewriter-like machine. By brother says it was a Monroe calculator, perhaps like this one, which he says helped him learn multiplication tables. He'd race the machine, and could sometimes beat it as it went "caCHUNKa, caCHUNKa, caCHUNKa". 

George Dyson, in his book Turing's Cathedral (p. 159), describes how scientists' frustration with the limitations of the Monroe calculator led in part to von Neumann's work to develop a high speed computer at the Institute for Advanced Study beginning in the mid-40s. The project was received skeptically by all at IAS but Veblen.  

Irene Hansen, whose various roles at Yerkes included assistant, secretary, and "computer", later married astronomer Donald Osterbrock, who studied with Chandrasekhar and had a post-doc at Princeton. Osterbrock and another Yerkes astronomer, Bill Morgan, contributed to the discovery of the Milky Way galaxy's spiral structure. I like this quote from Osterbrock's obit: "Morgan's methods were sometimes criticized as being "qualitative," and one critic even accused him of being 'a celestial botanist.'" How many of us get to grow up with a celestial botanist as a neighbor?

Interesting to contemplate how a love of nature led to discovering the Veblen House, long forgotten in a Princeton preserve, which led to learning of Veblen's legacy, which led via a movie about an Indian mathematician back to the world I inhabited as a child in Wisconsin.

In the movie, Ramunujan is played by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons portrays Hardy; Toby Jones plays Hardy’s colleague John Littlewood; Jeremy Northam shows up a few times as Bertrand Russell.


A bit of an afterthought: Note the similarity in appearance between Jeremy Irons in his portrayal of G.H. Hardy

and Veblen late in life. I'm sure Veblen would be majorly flattered by the comparison.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Research Uncovers a Description of the Veblen House from 1939

It's long been known that what we now call the Veblen House was a prefab originally brought to Princeton in pieces by Manhattan realtor and avid outdoorsman J.P. Whiton-Stuart. Competing stories placed the house's origins in Morristown or New York. I had been exploring various possibilities, including Bartow on the Sound, where Stuart's wife, Mary Marshall Ogden, grew up, and Tuxedo Park, where they may have resided just before moving to Princeton.

Thanks to some stellar research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. by Friends of Herrontown Woods volunteer Victoria Floor, we now know that the Veblen House was in fact brought here from Morristown, where the itinerant Whiton-Stuarts lived from 1916-21. Victoria was able to find correspondence between Whiton-Stuart and Oswald Veblen from 1939. Stuart clearly wants to sell the house to Veblen, saying that otherwise he would have to spend $1000 to move it to another site.

In this letter to Veblen, along with mentioning the Morristown origin, Jesse writes that "water is my good luck", presumably meaning he has a good source of water on the site, and how his work to build the house and improve the site was "a terror but a pleasure to do". We're finding our work to rehab the site, some 80 years later, is also a pleasure, so that fits.


In another letter, Jesse describes the house itself, as "put together like a watch or motor, and can be unbolted anywhere, added to, etc. Every stick was oiled twice before being fit. It has two air spaces, most houses have none. It is papered and blanketed three times. Most houses have one, so it is as cool in summer as it is warm and draftless in winter. It is heated with direct and indirect hot air, at a ridiculously low cost of fuel because of insulation. It has ventilators for summer. All lumber, trim and floors were picked from old, seasoned wood, hard to be had today."

All of this fits with our observations, as the wood has proven remarkably resistant to decay. The double walls have also contributed to preserving the structure. Various openings between rooms and floors comprise an elaborate system for ventilation and passive heat transfer.



And in another letter, he says the house "cost over $20,000 to build", which in the early 1930s sounds like a substantial amount.


Thanks to Victoria for doing this research in D.C.! Next step is to determine what origin and any prior existence the house had in Morristown. One theory is that Whiton-Stuart had it custom built in Morristown by people he knew there.

Having never done historical research before, I'm surprised at how engaging it is, like putting together a puzzle, or slowly bringing an image into focus, or gathering the pages of a novel that were scattered to the wind.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Restoring an English Garden at Veblen House


The closer one looks, the more treasures one finds on the grounds of Veblen House. The sugar maples were blooming ever so subtly on our March 13 workday.



More showy were the snowdrops, likely planted by Elizabeth Veblen and her gardening friends, as part of an English garden that transitioned into the wilder woodland beyond in Herrontown Woods. Now that the grounds are cleared of invasive shrubs, it's clear that the snowdrops follow a berm that forms one of two ovals around the house. The ovals were probably made to divert surface runoff away from the house, but the shape also is reminiscent of a corral for horses. Some historical research is showing that the original owner, Jesse Whiton-Stuart, was a skilled horseman.

Since the diabase boulders of the Princeton Ridge contribute to the beauty of this wild garden, we spent some time cleaning them of vines and leaves.


Here's a 1950s photo of a portion of the grounds, taken when the Veblens were still alive. You can see that Elizabeth, born in England, loved daffodils. Thanks to Bob Wells for this and many other photos that will help us to recreate a semblance of the garden's past glory.


Clusters of daffodils remain, and one of our tasks is to make sure the leaves linger long enough into the summer for the roots to have enough energy to bloom next year.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Informal Tour and Workday at Veblen House This Sunday, 2-5pm


(Also posted at PrincetonNatureNotes.org)
Stop by the Veblen House this Sunday, March 13, 2-5pm, where we'll be having a work day and can give you a tour of the grounds. The tour consists of telling stories about the many features of the grounds, and the remarkable people who lived there. Some projects are putting protective cages around the pawpaw seedlings in the pawpaw patch, clearing sticks and brush from ditches, and digging shallow diversions to divert runoff from the trails.

We'll provide cider and cookies, and I'll have "live stakes" of native elderberry, buttonbush and silky dogwood for anyone wishing to take one home to grow in the yard. Kids welcome.

For those wishing to "dig in", bring a shovel along if you have one handy.

Directions: Reach the Veblen House by entering the gravel driveway across from 443 Herrontown Road in Princeton (look for Rotary sign wrapped around a tree), or by taking the trail from the Herrontown Woods parking lot up to the farm cottage (cedar shingle siding) and taking a right through the fence. Veblen House appears as a small white square on this map, north of the parking lot.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Theatrical Portrait of Life at Alan Turing's Bletchley Park


On March 10 and 20 in Trenton, one of my teachers in the acting world, June Ballinger, will be performing a monologue she wrote about her mother, who worked at Bletchley Park supporting the work of mathematician Alan Turing to decode the Nazi's Enigma machine. Lest we think that mathematicians and other intellectuals aren't central to a nation's destiny,  here's a testimonial to the impact the work of Turing and others at Britain's decoding center had on the war:
"Turing played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic; it has been estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.[6]"
Turing wrote his thesis during two years in Princeton in the 1930s, under the direction of Alonzo Church, a former student of Oswald Veblen's. 

Though made famous by the movie The Imitation Game, Turing's decoding work was kept secret long after WWII. June's mother and other employees were sworn to secrecy by Winston Churchill. 

June interviewed her mother, wishing to learn about this exciting and pivotal time in her life. She has used the interviews as material for an extended monologue. June is usually wrapped up in her role as Artistic Director of Passage Theatre in Trenton, so this is a great and infrequent opportunity to witness her extraordinary talent in a role close to her heart.

Here's a description from the Passage Theatre website

"An 80-year-old former British code breaker attends a Remembrance Day service in England. She looks back on her life and the secrets about her work and identity that she has held for over 50 years. Will she ever be truly known by her children? How will she be remembered? 
Written and performed by June Ballinger and inspired by her mother’s work at Bletchley Park during WWII. Directed by Janice Goldberg."

June Ballinger's Remembrance is part of a series of monologues being presented through March 20th. If you've never been to Passage Theatre, it's in a beautiful historic building easily accessed from Route 1. (directions)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Spring Cleanup With Scouts at Veblen House


Spring cleanup came early to the Veblen House grounds this year, thanks to twelve local cubscouts and boyscouts, plus parents. They cleared away fallen branches, large and small, while learning about the history of the house and checking out the edible native species we've reintroduced to the site: pawpaws, butternuts, hazelnuts, and American chestnuts.

The workday was organized by Adrienne Rubin and facilitated by a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The Friends of Herrontown Woods is grateful for the scouts' efforts, and the opportunity to work with kids in this setting where nature and culture come together.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

1932-The Whiton-Stuarts Move to Princeton


Why the Whiton-Stuarts, soon-to-be builders of Veblen House, moved to Princeton in the 1930s is still a mystery, but a few possible leads can be found in this snippet of Princeton's 1932 phone book, which shows them first living on Alexander Rd. Yes, if you catch the history bug, even a phone book can become a satisfying read, all the more so because they used to list occupation, like "prof", "student", "mgr restr", and, in Whiton-Stuart's case, "real est".

We know that prior to his and his wife's moving to Princeton, Jesse Whiton-Stuart had lived 58 years in a peripatetic style. Born in Jersey City, educated in Manhattan by a tutor, he dropped out of Harvard after a year to travel the world in the 1890s, had shown particular interest in mathematics, become wealthy selling real estate in New York before heading to Arizona to run a cattle ranch, showed up in Morristown, NJ, living with his wife and two kids in 1920, and was an accomplished marksman and horseman. We know that he shared with Oswald Veblen a love of mathematics, buildings and the outdoors. We also know that Princeton was home to some prominent Stuarts, though no direct familial relationship has yet to be found.

One motivation to move to Princeton in the 1930's was suggested to me in a chance conversation at a party I attended recently in a house on Alexander Rd, next to McCarter Theater and also, coincidentally, next door to where Oswald Veblen first took up residence in Princeton in 1905. Universities might have been a refuge of sorts during the Great Depression, less affected by the economy's nosedive in 1929.

In Princton in 1932, Whiton-Stuart would have found a mathematics department coming into its golden age, with Veblen as chair. Fine Hall, largely designed by Veblen and later described by Sylvia Nassar in "A Beautiful Mind" as "the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics", had just opened up. Jesse might well have stopped by for tea--a tradition begun by the Veblens to facilitate interaction among faculty and students.

That year, the Institute for Advanced Study would open up, with Veblen as its first faculty member and Einstein its second, housed for the first few years at Fine Hall. Early concepts for computers were beginning to hatch. Among the "pillars of computer science" at Princeton in 1930 were Oswald Veblen and his former student, Alonzo Church, who in turn would oversee the brilliant dissertation of Alan Turing from 1936 to 1938. Turing became widely known in the 2015 movie, The Imitation Game, for his work in WWII to decode the Nazi's Enigma machine. It's hard to imagine that Whiton-Stuart was not drawn to Princeton at least in part by the mathematical mecca Veblen had done so much to foster.

But this post was intending to point out how much history is packed into that one snippet of the Princeton phone book that Jesse and his wife Mary joined in 1932.


First is Donald C Stuart, professor of dramatic arts at Princeton, and director of the Triangle Club when McCarter Theater opened in 1930, with budding actor Jimmy Stewart performing in the Club's first ever musical comedy, The Tiger Smiles. We can also speculate that he is the father of Donald C Stuart, Jr who founded Princeton's Town Topics, and whose wife Lucile developed a strong interest in native plants.

Duane R. Stuart was in the Latin department, came to Princeton in 1905, the same year as Veblen, and lived next door to him on Battle Road. Interesting that a Stuart lived next door to Veblen. Whether he's related to Whiton-Stuart's step-father is something to explore.

There are some interesting stories about Earnest C. Stuekelberg, whose residence in 1932, at 106 Alexander, is one of several recently sacrificed for the new arts and transportation center now being built on campus. A gifted Swiss mathematician who resided only a couple years in Princeton, he is described as having made many discoveries for which others were given credit. Wikipedia states that his work went unrecognized until the 1990s, and refers to "several Nobel Prizes awarded for work that Stueckelberg contributed to, without recognition". Even his first name was replaced by a stand-in. In case there's any importance to not being Earnest, his first name was actually Ernst. The Swiss, at least, celebrated his 100th birthday.

Others looked up, from that page of the phone book:

In 1930, Richard Swinnerton was an instructor in physical education, then apparently became director by 1932. A bit of gleaning from the internet: "The Richard Swinnerton Trophy is awarded annually to that freshman member of the Princeton tennis squad who through play, sportsmanship and influence has contributed most to the sport. Established by former Princeton tennis players in memory of Richard Swinnerton who coached many generations of Princetonians."

Wilbur W Swingle was a biology professor who, in this article, is described as having discovered that frogs cannot survive in "heavy water".

Lewis Hastings Sarett, a brilliant chemist

William Nelson Stultz

William J Stratton, Stony Brook Riding Club (any reference to horses can be relevant, given Whiton-Stuart interest in them.)


A chauffer for Coventry Farm--the beautiful farm protected from development, just west of Mountain Lakes in Princeton.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Our Trailwork Lauded in Recent Letter


Thanks to Sophie Glovier, whose letter in the Mailbox of Town Topics mentions the efforts of our Friends of Herrontown Woods to reclaim, mark and maintain public trails through 200 acres of open space in Herrontown Woods and adjoining Autumn Hill Reservation. These two Princeton nature preserves had become largely abandoned after storms and invasive shrubs blocked trails. Our group of volunteers has experienced the exhilaration and the sweat of reopening trails through this marvelous, boulder-strewn landscape, most of which was donated in 1957 by Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen. Leading the trail reclamation work has been Kurt Tazelaar, who views the preserve as his gymnasium, a place to get a workout while improving trails and shifting the ecological balance from invasive shrubs to natives.

Though town and county staff maintain parking lots, all of Princeton's nature trails remain accessible only through the largely volunteer work of nonprofits. Elsewhere in Princeton, Friends of Princeton Open Space has for decades maintained trails in and around Mountain Lakes, and the DR Greenway also does some maintenance of local greenspace. Sophie Glovier has been involved with both of those organizations over the years, and her research of local trails turned into the popular book, Walk the Trails In and Around Princeton.

There's also an informal Friends group keeping Gulick Park's trails clear. For those wishing to get out and about after comparative winter confinement, many of Princeton's trails are a bit muddy this time of year, though as you can see in the photo, along the Princeton ridge, there's lots of opportunities for rock-hopping.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Map of Herrontown Woods

If you've stopped by Herrontown Woods over the past year, you've probably seen this beautiful pamphlet with a detailed map of all the trails. It was created by Friends of Herrontown Woods board member, Jon Johnson. We periodically add more at the kiosk in the parking lot off of Snowden Lane, but this digital copy should help those with cell phones. You can click on the pages below to enlarge them, or get a printable copy at this link.




Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Adventures of J.P. Whiton-Stuart, First Owner of the Veblen House

One of the pleasures of adopting a historic house is learning about the people who once lived there. Oswald Veblen's extraordinary career continues to inspire preservation of the house, but there are other fascinating characters whose lives our sleuthing is slowly bringing to light. Though named after the Veblens, the house was originally brought to Princeton as a prefab by Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and his wife, Mary Marshall Ogden. Such special names, and the ever-expanding archive of old books and newspapers on the internet, make it relatively easy to find all sorts of tidbits about their lives. Jesse, for instance, went to Harvard, but stayed only a year. Why? His report back to the college in 1908 (even non-graduates were expected to send reports every five years on their doings) suggests that sitting in a classroom was not his style:
"After leaving Harvard I travelled all over the Continent and through the Far East, nearly always with a tutor or professor, and am one of the very few having crossed over- land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years. Between these travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses in mathematics. I also hunted as an avocation throughout the West, and won many important events pigeon shooting around New York. I then became associated with Douglas Robinson in real estate, and am now in business for myself as a specialist in selling large private residences."
His marksmanship and interest in mathematics echo similar qualities in Oswald Veblen. And Veblen showed a similar outdoor adventurous streak--George Dyson mentions Veblen having traveled down the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers a la Huckleberry Finn. These three qualities shared by Whiton-Stuart and Veblen lead naturally to speculation that Whiton-Stuart's arrival in Princeton in the 1930s, to settle next to Veblen's land and cottage, was not mere coincidence. And Whiton-Stuart's pigeon shooting--not sure if they were real or clay back then--offers a chance to explore the transition from guns to binoculars for birding.


What was it like for Whiton-Stuart in his early 20s to be crossing over-land through Persia? The first clue comes in an 1898 book, "Around the World on Wheels", about riding a bicycle around the world. It popped up on a google search, due to Whiton-Stuart making a brief appearance as a good Samaritan in Chapter 23, on page 120. The title echoes Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days", which was published twenty five years prior in what Wikipedia's account describes as the dawn of global tourism.

To get a flavor of the book, which is beautifully rendered online in highly readable form, a portion of the table of contents, and the passage mentioning our itinerant Whiton-Stuart, are shown below.

Click on the documents to enlarge them for reading. The book looks like a fun read.