Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Herrontown's Farming Tradition Continues

Adjacent to the Veblen House property in Herrontown Woods, a daily ritual is taking place. John Powell is giving this year's two head of cattle (easier just to call them cows) a feeding of grain. Former manager of Jac Weller's farm (now Smoyer Park), John continues the tradition of farming in a part of Princeton that once was home to many small subsistence farms, as the rock walls that thread through Herrontown Woods attest.

While the cattle are distracted with food, John goes after several pesky horseflies on the cattle's backs.

Neighbors and passersby love the sight of the cattle in the pasture. In addition to working with the county to acquire and preserve the Veblen cottage nearby, which is an 1870s farm cottage, the Friends of Herrontown Woods hope to see John's farm preserved, and have offered to help with management of this mini-farm in coming years, so that one small part of the Herrontown neighborhood's farming tradition can continue far into the future.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Weyl Fermion Discovery--The Veblen Connection

When I saw the headline "After 85-year search, massless particle with promise for next-generation electronics discovered" among the Princeton University website's top stories, my response was a bit cynical. So many headlines tease us with important discoveries that could transform society, only to reveal deeper into the text that the discovery won't find practical uses for decades, if ever.

The text reporting this discovery, however, got more interesting as it went along. Turns out the massless particle was first proposed "by the mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl in 1929." If you look at the Robert Nolan biography of Oswald Veblen, you find that Veblen "was largely responsible for selecting the other members of the original faculty (of the Institute for Advanced Study): James W. Alexander II, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Hermann Weyl."

The Princeton University article goes on to say:
"Weyl fermions have been long sought by scientists because they have been regarded as possible building blocks of other subatomic particles, and are even more basic than the ubiquitous, negative-charge carrying electron (when electrons are moving inside a crystal). Their basic nature means that Weyl fermions could provide a much more stable and efficient transport of particles than electrons, which are the principle particle behind modern electronics. Unlike electrons, Weyl fermions are massless and possess a high degree of mobility; the particle's spin is both in the same direction as its motion — which is known as being right-handed — and in the opposite direction in which it moves, or left-handed."
Maybe someone's imagination, massless and possessing a high degree of mobility, will find useful applications for the Wehl fermion much sooner than later, in which case we will need to invent a dance in which we all spin both directions at the same time.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Veblen's Mathematical Geneology

I was talking to a classical pianist the other day, and told her I'm three generations removed from Bela Bartok. She replied that she's 6th generation Beethoven. My link to Bela Bartok stems from having studied piano with Michele Cooker, who studied with Gyorgy Sandor, who was a student of Bartok's. Though Michele taught me piano rather than composition, maybe some quality of Bartok rubbed off, because I went on to write many short piano pieces for my students, in the spirit of Bartok's Mikrokosmos.

Similar lineages are traced in the world of mathematics. Jon Johnson, who's on the board of Friends of Herrontown Woods, sent me this link documenting Oswald Veblen's mathematical descendants. By this count, Veblen had 16 students and 10,126 descendants. The second number will steadily increase as descendants advise each new generation of mathematicians. The majority of Veblen's mathematical descendants can be attributed to three of his students, Alonzo Church, R.L. Moore, and John Whitehead. That Veblen played the advisor role for just 16 students must owe in part to his having left Princeton University to join the Institute for Advanced Study, which did not have the traditional advisory relationship between faculty and graduate students.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Taking a Step Towards Reuse

One central theme of the Veblen House project is reuse. This can be seen most obviously in the form of saving and repurposing a remarkable historic house, but also plays out in small everyday ways, like the salvaging and repurposing of this climbing wall. Part of a backyard play set, it was put out for the trash in my neighborhood. As it happens, there's a muddy stretch of trail between the Veblen House and cottage that could use a boardwalk, and this looked to be perfect for the purpose.

With the handholds removed, it was rolled into place on a wheelbarrow similarly rescued from the curb. Another piece was added, meaning that about 100 pounds less "stuff" got hauled to the landfill, and we no longer have to dodge the mud. It also saved the time and materials that a newly constructed boardwalk would have required.

Imagination and re-visioning stand between an economy's phenomenal productivity and a bulging landfill. Resourcefulness means fewer resources are needed to achieve the same result. The climbing board spent years offering a challenge to kids. Now it offers kids and adults easy passage over a former challenge. What more can we ask, really, from a boardwalk or from ourselves, than to change the world one step at a time?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Veblen House Hosts Rotary Club Youth Exchange Students

New experience, new friends, new spaces, new plants--that was the outcome of an afternoon spent on the Veblen House grounds with participants in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. The Friends of Herrontown Woods teamed up with the Rotary Club of Princeton to play host to eighteen of the volunteers—from Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, India and South Korea—all of whom are staying in the U.S. for a year with the help of four Rotary clubs in New Jersey.

My group bravely took on an intimidating stand of multiflora rose in the lower field, cutting back the tangle and hauling the thorny branches off to the woods. The object was to make room for some hazelnut sprouts rescued from a nearby construction site.

Metaphorically speaking, we took a couple lemons (a patch of invasive shrubs and a roadside hazelnut cut down to make way for a house) and made some lemonade,

and had some fun along the way. The eight hazelnuts have all since sprouted and are growing, protected from deer by some fencing.

Meanwhile, other students did some habitat restoration deeper into Herrontown Woods,
and cleared wisteria that had overgrown a the large circular stone wall where horses were once exercised next to the Veblen House. The cleared space within the horse run made a good gathering spot for a group shot. 

All in all, an exhilarating and productive afternoon. Thanks to all the students, and to the Rotary for making this possible.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Beautiful Mind

The tragic loss of John Nash and his wife Alicia in an auto accident two days ago has prompted me to complete a post about the Veblen connection in Sylvia Nasar's book, "A Beautiful Mind". A good friend of Nash's, Jim Manganaro, had given me quotes from the book that mentioned the Veblens. We had often discussed my possibly talking to Dr. Nash, to see if he had any memories of the Veblens, but we didn't quite make it happen.

After a performance two years ago at McCarter Theater of "Proof", a play that explores the connection between genius and madness,

Sylvia Nasar took part in a panel discussion. Afterwards, I asked if she might still have notes from the research she did for the book, notes that could provide some insights about the Veblens. She didn't sound optimistic about easily finding them, but it's interesting to pull some quotes from the book relevant to the Veblens.

On the first page of Chapter 3, "The Center of the Universe", describing the scene Nash found when he arrived in Princeton after WWII, Nasar writes, "May Veblen, the wife of a wealthy Princeton mathematician, Oswald Veblen, could still identify by name every single family, white and black, well to do and of modest means, in every single house in town." It's an intriguing tidbit suggesting that Elizabeth Veblen, who instituted the tradition of afternoon tea at both old Fine Hall and the Institute for Advanced Studies, may have had a central role in the town's social fabric as well.

I had not encountered any other reference to Elizabeth Veblen as "May", though my notes, perhaps from talking to Nasar, say that May was the name of one of Henry Fine's sisters.

The third chapter continues with a wonderful description of old Fine Hall, "the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics". After Henry Fine's tragic death, as with John Nash due to a reckless car driver, the Jones family funded the building of the original Fine Hall, "designed by Oswald Veblen".

Describing all the contributions Turing and other mathematicians with connections to Princeton made to the war effort, Nasar writes that "Oswald Veblen and several of his associates essentially rewrote the science of ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground."

"Princeton in 1948 was to mathematics what Paris once was to painters and novelists, Vienna to psychoanalysts and architects, and ancient Athens to philosophers and playwrights." This is the Princeton that Oswald Veblen had a central role in creating, a setting that attracted the likes of John Nash.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Nature/Culture Walk

On the premise that holiday weekends can sometimes have unexpected gaps, we're offering a nature and culture walk at Herrontown Woods--Sunday, May 24, at 1:30pm. Along with walking the trails and seeing what's growing, there will be talk of recent habitat restoration efforts and the mysteries of magnetism found in some of the boulders. Culture comes into play with the Veblen and farming legacies. Meet at the parking lot (it's down the short road across from Smoyer Park entrance on Snowden Lane).

The Rotary Club of Princeton includes the Veblen House at Herrontown Woods among its service projects. They're having their annual Pancake Festival fundraiser at Palmer Square this Saturday, May 23, 8am to noon. Money raised goes to community projects and scholarships. All you can eat--pancakes, fruit and bacon--for $10. Pre-K free.

A House as a Character in a Play

There's an extraordinary play at McCarter Theater in Princeton, continuing through this month, called Five Mile Lake. The five characters keep us spellbound for an hour and a half, but there's also a house that serves as a character of sorts. Like the Veblen House, it's a fixer upper in a beautiful natural setting. One character values the house, not only for its inherent value but also as the legacy of his grandfather, and puts time and money into fixing it up. His brother in the play values neither the house nor the past generation that left it in the family's trust. The Veblen project brings out that divide in perspective. In the play, the mending energy applied to the house takes on a metaphorical quality as the characters seek in each other a way to "come in from the cold".

Another fixer upper, with less prospect of repair, will figure prominently in the play that begins McCarter's new season in September, Baby Doll, by Tennessee Williams. Perhaps it can be said that all characters in plays, whether houses or human, tend to be fixer uppers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Found Beauty--Springtime at the Veblen House

With the deep woodlands of Herrontown Woods to the west, and a small farm to the east, the grounds of Veblen House offer a transition, from field to forest and from english garden to native woodland. Though it's been decades since anyone has cared for Elizabeth Veblen's gardens, much remains. The two quince trees met their demise several years back, but the redbuds still put on an impressive show.

A clearing near the house is filled with Ajuga, a member of the mint family.

In another clearing, I found the first sprouts of ten native green-fringed orchids. I protected only one last year, having thought they might be nothing more than common lily of the valley. It grew instead into the lovely orchid, which spurred a visit this spring to protect more before the deer could find them.

In another flower bed, multiflora rose had displaced a portion of the remnant irises. Cut down during a Rotary volunteer day two years ago, the invasive rose was kept in check by the deer last year. We're leaving it as an experiment, to see if the deer do the same this year.

Earlier in the spring, daffodils made a beautiful display next to the small barn and corncrib, after FOHW board member Sally Tazelaar removed the thick tangle of multiflora rose that had grown over them.

Through all these acts, large and small, we reconnect with the love and energy that a previous generation invested in this special place in Princeton.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Walk in the Woods for K-2 Students

There was lots to see as Denise Troxel's class of K-2 students left Stone Hill Church and headed into Herrontown Woods. We saw big beech trees with smooth gray bark that looked like the feet of elephants where they touch the ground, and the yellow flowers of spicebush just beginning to open. We saw the prickly "gum balls" of sweetgum trees, and jumped from rock to rock, root to root, when the trail got a little muddy.

Then, as we were crossing the little stream flowing out of the headwaters, we peered down into the clear water. What grabbed everyone's attention? One of the special things about Herrontown Woods is that a whole little section of the Harry's Brook watershed is preserved. We were in the headwaters, a big flat expanse that catches the rain and slowly releases it into the beginnings of a stream unspoiled by development. The steady supply of clean water provides habitat for a creature found nowhere else along the Princeton ridge--the marbled salamander.

The young salamanders were first discovered earlier this spring by Tyler Christiansen, a remarkable naturalist who was featured in the documentary "Field Biologist".

We also saw water striders walking on the water, and the tiny red flowers that had fallen from a red maple just upstream.

Then we headed off-trail, past boulders made furry and speckled by moss growing on them. Dodging an occasional wood briar with its little thorns, we found the woods otherwise open and easy to walk through.

The kids scanned the woods for a vernal pool like this one, made when rainwater fills the hole left by a tree toppled years ago by a storm. It's called a vernal pool because it holds water in the spring, then disappears in the summer. Because fish don't live in them, these pools make a good place for insects to live, and for frogs and salamanders to lay their eggs. We found a few that didn't contain much life. Maybe they dry out too fast to make a good home.

Then we found a vernal pool that had all sorts of life. Water striders dimpled the surface with their legs, predatory beetles scurried about.

We found a dragonfly larva, which didn't seem to mind posing on my hand for a minute, and a spider trying to walk on the water. Spotted salamanders, rarely found anywhere else in Princeton, had visited this pool weeks earlier and laid their white clusters of eggs.

And over in the corner were clusters of wood frog eggs, made green by algae that grow on the eggs and help supply them with oxygen.

After checking out the hole high in a tree where raccoons live, the students found the trail again and headed back towards Stone Hill Church, newly acquainted with some of their little neighbors living and growing in Herrontown Woods.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Stone Hill Church Volunteers Clear Old Barn Site

One of Herrontown Woods' neighbors is Stone Hill Church. Back when they were located on Westerly Road, their kids helped me periodically with habitat restoration at Mountain Lakes. Now that they've moved up to the ridge in northeastern Princeton, they've started helping in Herrontown Woods. Last year the Friends of Herrontown Woods helped them build a spur trail from the church into the preserve. Their trail is graced this time of year by spring wildflowers--trout lilies, wood anemone and rue anemone--with the fiddleheads of ferns just beginning to emerge.

This past weekend, I led thirty kids on an expedition from the church into the woods and over to the Veblen House to clear some invasives.

 On the way, we visited the cliff, then passed by the 19th century Veblen farmstead, then through the gate over to the Veblen House. This is the first year we could actually see the daffodils in front of the barn, after Sally Curtis cleared all the multiflora rose that had kept them hidden.

The goal for the kids was to clear privet and multiflora rose from the footprint of a larger barn that used to stand next to the circular horse run. The premise here is that if people can actually see the features around the Veblen House--the horse run, the remnants of the English garden Elizabeth Veblen tended, the barn footprint--it will be easier to appreciate the history and potential of the site. There's a curious story that a public employee used to sleep in the barn. After the barn burned down in the 1950s, they found a metal box containing his paychecks, which he apparently never cashed. That would have been an interesting lifestyle.

One of the more rewarding aspects of working with youth on invasive shrub removal is that they learn to work together. One will use a garden rake to push the thorny branches of a rose bush out of the way so another can duck under with loppers and cut the stems near the ground. Another then drags the branches off to the edge of the worksite. The roses grow in a very gangly way, so everyone has to be alert and aware of each other, to avoid getting accidentally pricked by a thorn. The aim is to get back to a more gentle nature--the expanse of ferns and wildflowers they saw next to their church, or the garden that once embellished the Veblen House.

One of the teenagers climbed a dogwood tree to liberate it from the clutches of a wisteria vine. The vine had originally been planted for a trellis next to the house. No doubt it was lovely, and fragrant, but when the house was boarded up, the wisteria undertook a kudzu-like expansion into the nearby woods.

Everyone approached the challenge of invasives removal in a different way. These girls used a bucket brigade method to transfer cut multiflora rose to a pile.

After several hours, and with half the barn's footprint now visible, the kids headed back through the woods to the church.

Thanks to everyone at Stone Hill Church for lending a hand at the Veblen House!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Veblen House History and Raingarden Tutorial at Updike Farmstead on April 4th

The Friends of Herrontown Woods and the Historical Society of Princeton are teaming up to present an indoor/outdoor program this Saturday, April 4, at the HSP home base: Updike Farm on Quaker Bridge Road. Come learn about the latest research on the Veblen House's history, the ongoing adventures of restoring Herrontown Woods over the past few years, and the logic of raingardens. And you can check out the Updike Farm, where renovation of the big barn is underway.

Here's the press release:

The themes of history and nature are featured in the special events offered at the Historical Society of Princeton’s April 4th Community Day at Updike Farmstead. Steve Hiltner, local naturalist, musician, writer and editor of the blog, Princeton Nature Notes, will lead three different programs to educate and inspire visitors.

At 1:00 PM -- Siting a Raingarden in Your Yard -- Raingardens are a popular, creek-friendly and attractive way to create habitat while filtering runoff from your house. Join a tour around the Updike farmhouse as Steve Hiltner discusses factors to consider when deciding where best to put a raingarden in your yard. Downspouts, sump pumps, air conditioners -- all will be discussed as potential sources of water to sustain a wildflower garden through droughts.

At 2:00 PM -- Preserving Oswald Veblen's Historic House and Legacy -- Oswald Veblen was a famous mathematician and visionary who was instrumental in bringing Einstein and the Institute for Advanced Study to Princeton. A "woodchopping professor,” he loved the woods, and founded Princeton's open space movement in 1957 by donating 100 acres for Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first nature preserve. He and his wife also donated their home and farmstead for a public purpose. A new nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), is seeking to acquire and restore this unique, historic house, and realize Veblen's vision. FOHW's president and co-founder, Steve Hiltner, will talk about the passion, sweat-equity and serendipity that has made the restoration of Veblen's Herrontown Woods such a rewarding experience.

At 3:00 PM -- Tree and Wildflower Walk --Learn about plants on this informal walk around the Updike Farmstead grounds to learn about the stately trees and plants growing along the fence lines of the property, including the giant red mulberry tree that bears delicious berries in June.

All programs are included with $4 museum admission. Updike Farmstead is located at 354 Quaker Road, Princeton. For questions, contact Eve Mandel, Director of Programs and Visitor Services, at (609) 921-6748 x102 or eve@princetonhistory.org.

ABOUT THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF PRINCETON – Founded in 1938, The Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) is a museum and research center dedicated to interpreting the history of Princeton, New Jersey. Home to a vast collection of artifacts, manuscripts and photographs, HSP offers a wide array of exhibitions, lectures and public programs each year to schools, adults and families at its two locations, Bainbridge House and the Updike Farmstead. Visit us at www.princetonhistory.org.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Ice Rink and Other Sculptures at Herrontown Woods

It was a sense of mission that caused us to venture into Herrontown Woods on a windy winter's afternoon so cold my hands were freezing up after just a few camera shots. But as often happens, once we got out there, we found plenty to appreciate. There were the tawny leaves held tight by beech trees, contrasting with the snow in the bright afternoon light. The snow we thought would slow our way had already been packed down by neighbors walking their dogs, and ground often wet in spring and summer was conveniently frozen hard.

This flat, densely wooded terrain, part of the Levine Tract preserved after the Veblens were gone, may not look promising for an interesting find.

But what's that mound rising up in the middle of an otherwise flat expanse north of the ridge?

Why, it's an ice rink, carved out of the rocky ground by a bulldozer long ago. Whether that was the intent is unclear. Might a homesick, bulldozer-driving Canadian have gone rogue a half century ago? If so, he correctly predicted that the water table would stay high enough in that area to insure seepage into the three foot deep, L-shaped cavity, and plenty of water to freeze in the winter. Nice math: Man + time + machine + hydrology + wintry weather = ice rink. It's all beginning to add up.

As you can see, the ice is thick enough to hold my daughter, a dog named Leo, and what appears to be an angel. After weeks of cold weather, the pond, which has no outlet, is probably frozen solid.

Next time, we'll bring a shovel and clear us a nice spot for that hockey game the mythic Canadian longed for.

Leaning over the water, all along the perimeter, are black birch trees whose buds begin to taste like wintergreen after a few seconds of chewing.

The beech tree leaves decorated our walk back, but there was still more sculpting to see.

Kurt showed me where he and Sally have been doing some habitat restoration around the sculpted features jutting out along the dramatic dropoff overlooking the Veblen cottage. Though the glaciers--essentially giant natural bulldozers--didn't quite reach our area during the last ice age, the powerful winds that blew down from them must have contributed to exposing these boulders.

And now Kurt, another force of nature, has been re-exposing the boulders by removing invasive shrubs from the steep slope. If they're too big to pull out, the Privet, Linden Viburnum, Honeysuckle, Multi-flora rose, and winged Euonymus are being cut down, improving prospects for the spicebush, blackhaw Viburnum, and other natives. This spring will mark the first time this dramatic geologic feature will be visible in decades.

Walking down the hill to the cottage and farmstead--a beautiful sight in a snowy landscape--we craned our necks to see the tops of the towering tulip poplars, where late sun was highlighting last year's array of tulip-shaped blooms still held tight in vaulted canopy.

On the way back to the parking lot, we saw some work by Herrontown Woods' sculptor in residence, the pileated woodpecker. Signature features are the size and vertical shape.

And the fresh woodchips on the snow suggested the work had been done earlier in the day.

Deep in the tree was the prize. Looks like carpenter ants to me.

Back home, we warmed our feet and hands next to the woodstove, as the Veblens certainly would have after an exhilarating winter's walk.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Turing, Veblen, Bicycles, Movies and Theater

I'm posting with permission this email from Steve Kruse, who among many other interests is a strong advocate for better bicycle routes in Princeton. He offers all sorts of interesting links and connections related to Alan Turing and the movie about him that's showing in town. Other recent events related to Turing in the Princeton area were a talk by author Andrew Hodges ("Alan Turing: The Enigma") this past December at the public library, and a Passage Theatre performance I happened to catch by the extraordinary actor June Ballinger of a solo piece she is developing about her mother, who worked for Turing at the Bletchley Park codebreaking center.

Various themes associated with Veblen House can be found in Kruse's email. First of course is Veblen's role in building the Princeton math department that attracted Turing to town for two years. There's also the reference to prefab housing, which the Veblen House is a unique example of, the house-in-the-woods theme of Snow White, and the bicycles we hope will one day have good routes out to Herrontown Woods from town.

Steve Kruse's email:

I recently watched "The Imitation Game" at the Garden Theater,
and can recommend it. As a computer engineer, and having 
seen "Breaking the Code" on Broadway many years ago, I already
knew quite a bit about Alan Turing's triumphal/tragic story. Plus
my parents both grew up during WW2 in coastal towns where
convoys, escort warships, and long-range patrol planes were part
of the everyday scenery; our cottage had been a prefab naval hut.

Turing spent 1936-38 in Princeton, obtaining his doctorate in
mathematics. He resided at 183 Graduate College and likely
spent a substantial amount of time in Fine Hall, which has
since been renamed Jones Hall. His supervisor was Alonzo
Church, who was recruited by Oswald Veblen (no relation),
lived at 30 Jefferson Rd and is buried in Princeton Cemetery.

Turing defended his Ph.D. thesis in May 1938, at a time when 
his favorite movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had
already been playing in the cinema for several months. Since
the Garden Theater opened in September 1920, there's a
chance I watched the Alan Turing biopic in the same space
where Turing watched and was inspired by the Disney movie.
However, since Turing actually wrote most of his thesis while
back in Cambridge, this coincidence seems almost as unlikely
as the odds that a machine-assisted human would crack Enigma.
There are several anecdotes with regard to Alan Turing and
the bicycle. One concerns cryptography, as it relates to the
links of a bicycle chain, as told in Understanding the Enigma:

   "Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is an interesting and 
    informative novel tying together different generations of 
    cryptography. A passage I found most interesting was in 
    the chapter ‘Cycles’. In this chapter, Stephenson expands  
    on the fundamental mathematics behind the Enigma machine: 
    modular arithmetic. Stephenson compares modular arithmetic
    to Turing’s bike. For some reason, Turing’s bike has a rear wheel
    with one bent spoke and a weak chain link. When the spoke comes
    into contact with the chain at a certain position the chain will fall apart.

Additional details are given in That Strange Bicyclist, Alan Turing:

   While working at Bletchley Park, Alan would use the bicycle to 
   commute to work as well as to get around Cambridge. The bike, 
   however, was an old and defective machine. It also had an interesting 
   problem. As you pedaled it, every so often, the chain would pop off 
   and disengage from the chain ring. Every time this happened, he had 
   to hop off the bike and put the chain back on. [...] He loved his dying 
   bike and would not give it up for something better. In fact, he enjoyed 
   riding such a poorly functioning machine that no one else could. So how 
  did he ride it? Well, legend (from reading an article by Ian Stewart in 
  Nature) has it that he chose the most tortuous path to devising a 
  solution for the problem.     
  [...] That's not all. Turing had a bad case of hay fever allergy from an early 
  age. He rationalized that to filter pollen away from irritating and exacerbating
  town, even in the rain. He was indifferent to what others thought about this practice.

In cycling lingo, you eventually decide it's more cool to say "I shipped the chain"
than "my chain has fallen off". So whenever this happens, remember Alan Turing
and all those ships he kept from going to the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Finding Veblen Connections in a NY Photography Exhibit

Though surrounded by forest, the Veblen House might not exist if not for New York City, where its original owner Jesse Whiton-Stuart was raised and later prospered a century ago selling Manhattan real estate. A recent visit to New York added validation for the cause of saving the Veblen House, in the form of Annie Leibovitz's photography exhibition at the New York Historical Society gallery. You can find many of the photos through an internet search of "Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage".

As the exhibition guide explained, an initial visit to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst inspired a project that took Leibovitz to homes of many other historic figures, where she photographed objects that had meaning to her. The result is an extraordinary example of how photography allows artifacts located at the various sites to travel, bringing attention not only to the photographer's visual sensibilities but also to the historic figures and locations themselves. The bed of Henry David Thoreau, a dress of Marian Anderson's, the gloves of Abraham Lincoln--items that might gain only passing notice in a museum--are turned into art powerful enough to carry the object's backstory to a new audience.

The accompanying text in the exhibition guide offered some parallels with Veblen House. The Veblen's balcony linking the two upstairs bedrooms may once have been used much as Eleanor Roosevelt used her "unheated sleeping porch next to her bedroom, even in cold weather." I thought of Jac Weller, the colorful character, military historian and Veblen neighbor, when reading that Elvis Presley was a collector of guns, one of which he aimed at a television set, now in storage at Graceland. I thought of the Veblen possessions tragically lost to a leaky pipe while in storage at a county building in Trenton, when reading that much of Martha Graham's materials were badly damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy.

The story of Pete Seeger clearing land along the Hudson to build a log cabin, where he would raise his family (Leibovitz photographed his tool shed), brought memories of Veblen's grandparents forging a series of farmsteads out of the Wisconsin wilderness in the 1800s. Another photo is of Charles Darwin's Sandwalk, a looping path "that he had planted with trees and bushes" and walked along two or three times a day. Veblen, too, planted oaks along a path he would frequently walk. Nature as a stimulant of thought is a recurrent theme among scientists and writers of that era, and in Veblen's motivation to save 500 acres of land, at the Institute for Advanced Study and at Herrontown Woods. Darwin also bred and studied pigeons, which played a role in the life of the first owner of the Veblen House, Jesse Whiton-Stuart. He may have housed them in the dovecote (visible in the first photo in this post) that once stood near the house. Emily Dickinson's love of plants, also photographed by Leibovitz, is a thread that runs through the lives of many others, including Robert Frost and Veblen's uncle Thorstein.

A bit of an aside, regarding the connection between wooded pathways and scientists: Growing up next to Yerkes Observatory, I would walk to school along a path used fifty years prior by the astronomer Edwin Frost to get from his home to the observatory. He became blind later in life, but would still walk through the woods to his office every morning. A wire was strung from tree to tree along the path, so he could guide his way with the crook of a cane held against the wire. Pieces of the wire could still be found in the trees when I was exploring around there as a kid. Merging scientists and writers, as Leibovitz does in her exhibit, I somehow turned it in my youthful mind that the Frost who walked that path was Robert Frost, the famous poet.

Annie Leibovitz, describing her pilgrimage, says "I couldn't help but be pulled into other people's lives." This website is one more example of that power of people far displaced in time to draw us in.

The exhibit runs through February 22, next door to the Natural History Museum.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Veblen House Connections--Eve Hatch Holmes

A little searching on the internet yielded the existence of a grandaughter of the first owners of the Veblen House, the Whiton-Stuarts. Their daughter, Sylvia, eloped at an early age with the writer Eric Hatch, and to their brief marriage was born Evelyn Hatch, who was still around until three years ago. If only I had listened to John McPhee, who is said to have said, "You cannot interview the dead.", we might have learned something of Evelyn and her mother Sylvia, who apparently lived at what is now the Veblen House in the 1930s.

A June 29, 2011 obituary for Eve (Evelyn) Hatch Holmes:

HOLMES--Eve (Evelyn) Hatch, of New York City, Cedarhurst, New York and Palm Beach, Florida died at New York Hospital on June 24, 2011 following brief illness. Adored wife of the late E. Williams Homes. Loving stepmother of E. Williams Holmes, Jr., Peter B. Holmes and Jay H. Holmes. Eve was the daughter of novelist and screenwriter Eric Hatch and Sylvia Whiton-Stuart Hatch and cherished granddaughter of Frederick H. Hatch and May Daly Hatch. She had a long and distinguished career in the world of fashion and was for many years fashion editor of Town & Country magazine. Eve was an active member of the Lawrence Beach Club, Rockaway Hunt Club and the Colonial Dames of America. To her galaxy of dear friends worldwide, Eve was especially loved for her loyalty, razor-sharp mind and rollicking wit. She will be missed. Funeral service and burial: Trinity-St. John's Church, 1142 Broadway, Hewlett, New York, Wednesday, June 29, at 11:00am. In lieu of flowers, a contribution to the charity of your choice will be appreciated.
Eric Hatch was a writer for the New Yorker, but the following description suggests some interesting connections to recurring themes of the Veblen House and farmstead. One is his service on a State Historical Commission. The other is his passion for horses, which was shared by Sylvia's father Jesse and also apparently by Veblen, who is said to have kept a number of horses on the property. It may be that Sylvia and Eric met in the horse world.

Eric Hatch (31 October 1901 - 4 July 1973) lived in Connecticut, and was an immensely productive, and busy, man. He owned a radio station (WBIS in Bristol), wrote screenplays and plays, fiction, non fiction and magazine articles. He was also a member of the State Historical Commission, an expert horseman, director of the Connecticut Horse Shows Association, a judge and steward of the American Horse Shows Association....

Saturday, December 13, 2014


More numerical than mathematical, but let it be said: Today is a numerical anomaly, which is to say there is an irregular regularity to today's date, 12/13/14, the last time this century we'll have numbers lined up, unless we count 1/2/34, 2/3/45, etc. May the numerical powers-that-be be with you today.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What's a Hay Barrack?

Photos from the 1950s show that the Veblen House grounds used to include a hay barrack (back left). The dove cote in the front right is mentioned briefly in a previous post about the house's first owner, JP Whiton-Stuart. Though the photo here shows the hay barrack being used to store firewood, it may have originally handled any surplus hay the barn could not hold. A barn that once stood behind this hay barrack burned down around 1950.

Bob Wells, who lived in the Veblen House from 1975 to 1998, calls the hay barrack a "hay marn" and explains its function thus:
"What I was calling a chicken coop was actually a hay marn, an Acadian form from Vermont (?). Pegs hold up the roof, which can be raised or lowered on four supporting cedar posts, depending on how much hay is stacked inside."

Bob and his son Dave used it as a rabbit hutch for growing some 50 Netherland dwarf rabbits. Dave traveled around the region to show the rabbits in contests, and won many trophies.

This scene with a slightly different design appears in a book entitled "The Barn", with a description: "This rather oriental-looking scene is actually on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Hay is protected by a hipped roof which can be adjusted up or down depending on the height of the stacked hay. It is a technique to be found on the Magdalen Islands as well as in other parts of the world."

An email last year from Bob Craig of the NJ Historic Preservation Office offered additional information relevant to NJ:

"The hay barracks were of Dutch origin, and were exclusively associated with areas of Dutch settlement in America. It was a feature of the traditional Dutch landscape that successfully became established here, but had no appeal to Englishmen, who kept their hay in barns. I am sad to hear that the (Veblen) barrack was taken down in 2008. Was it in such condition that it needed to be taken down? Usually the poles need to be replaced.

Hay barracks, once common in the Dutch areas of the State, are extremely rare today. In a fairly hasty canvas of the State, including discussions with several long-time architectural historians, we could collectively come up with only two barracks that could definitely be confirmed as still existing, and they were both on the same farm (in Hunterdon Co., I think). Leads to some others did not pan out, they having been taken down within the prior decade."

One aim of our rehab of the Veblen property will be to build a new hay barrack on its original site.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nature/Culture Walk This Sunday, 2pm

With temperatures predicted to climb into the 50s, I'll be leading a nature and culture walk through Herrontown Woods this Sunday, Nov. 30, at 2pm. We'll be exploring the remarkable features of Princeton's first nature preserve, including a hidden cliff, a boulder field, quarried stone, the traces of an 1870 microfarm, and a mysterious large excavation that may have been intended as a swimming pool.

The event is the first since the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) received official nonprofit status. Members of the group have made critical interventions at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation over the past two years, clearing and improving long-blocked trails, and taking steps to save and repurpose the buildings left behind by the visionary mathematician Oswald Veblen and his wife Elizabeth, who began Princeton's open space movement by donating Herrontown Woods as a public preserve in 1957.

Meet at the parking lot for Herrontown Woods, the entrance to which is across from Smoyer Park, near the eastern end of Snowden Lane. For any questions, check the "About Me" info up on the right of this webpage for contact info.