Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Veblen House History: The Wives of Robert Whiton-Stuart

Adding to the historic importance and interest of Veblen House--a 1920s prefab with unique custom elements inside and out--are the colorful and consequential lives of those who lived there. The process of internet research is a bit like fishing. You cast some keywords out into cyberspace and see what old newsclippings come back. Below is a sampling.

Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden, the couple that brought what would later be called the Veblen House to Princeton, had two children, Robert and Sylvia. Research on Sylvia's three marriages beyond a preliminary post is on pause for the moment. Initial searches yielded little about Robert's life, but though we still know little about Robert himself, recent research has revealed remarkable connections, including with some extraordinary conservationists.

Robert was born in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 1909, and grew up there, except for a few years in Prescott, Arizona, when father Jesse decided he'd rather run a cattle ranch than sell real estate in Manhattan. (Though he grew up in Manhattan, Jesse was as much an avid outdoorsman as Oswald Veblen.) Educated in Switzerland and at Cambridge University, England, son Robert chose a career related to his father's, as a construction engineer based in NY.


During the time when his parents were living here in Princeton, Robert married Christine Paschall Davis, daughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador-at-large, Norman H. Davis.


FDR's mother attended the wedding, March 23, 1937, at the Davis home on East 79th St.. Norman H. Davis had also been prominent in the Woodrow Wilson administration, serving as assistant secretary of the treasury and undersecretary of state. He was also at some point national chairman of the Red Cross.

Lawrence M.C. Smith of Washington, DC, presumably a very close friend of Robert's, was the best man, and a quick internet search reveals that he and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived. 

Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness, less than ten years after they were married. Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, died in 1942, and her father in 1944.This quote from a hometown newspaper is all we know thus far of what she did during her life.
Born in Tullahoma, Tenn. the former Miss Christine Paschall Davis, was a summer resident of this town more than 30 years. She was graduated from Milton Academy, attended Vassar College and was graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school. For a time she was a nurse at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.
They had a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York.

At the time of Christine's death, Robert was assistant to the president of the George A Fuller Company, contractors, a company that built Penn Station, the NY Times building, and other landmarks. In wikipedia, George A. Fuller is described as "an architect often credited as being the "inventor" of modern skyscrapers and the modern contracting system."

Thus far, the most interesting thing we know about Robert is the sort of company he kept. His two additional marriages, to Bertha Clausen and Edwina Atwell Martin, continue this theme of marrying into extraordinary families. Edwina's story in particular leads fascinating places, back to the extraordinary wealth of Andrew Carnegie's partner, Henry Phipps, as well as a grandfather whose firm built Rockefeller Center and the Lincoln Tunnel, and forward to her son's life-long devotion to conservation in Africa. Edwina's son, step-son of Robert Whiton-Stuart, is Esmond Bradley Martin, Jr., a geographer who has long been immersed in the struggle to save elephants and rhinos from extinction.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

News Flash: Nature is a Geometer

A geometer, for those of us who live most of our lives without encountering the word, is a mathematician particularly skilled in geometry, which is what Oswald Veblen was. Because of his generosity and devotion to mathematics, every three years a geometer receives the Veblen Prize from the American Mathematical Society "for notable research in geometry or topology." And because of the Veblens' generosity and love of nature, people in Princeton and from far and wide get to take a walk in Herrontown Woods. A couple days ago, we were out there discussing trail work when a couple came by with a beautiful miniature collie. They were on their way from Boston to D.C. and had chosen Herrontown Woods as a midway rest stop for walking their dog because they were able to find our map online. Stories like that make us feel like the Friends of Herrontown Woods is on the right track.

But this post is about recent backyard research, where a cold night frequently leaves finely crafted geometric renderings in a 35 gallon black tub that catches rainwater from the roof.



Polygons, triangles and squares, oh my. How water molecules can climb up to make these ridges I haven't a clue, but the answer when it comes will only deepen our sense of wonder at nature's creative powers. Nor is it clear why the water in the black tub is more talented than other backyard miniponds. Maybe the shape of the tub affects how the water freezes, or minerals from the roof play a role in how the crystals form. In any case, it's like having a child genius who brings home a brilliant piece of artwork from pre-school every day.

The forms in the lower right of this photo have the shape of beautifully cut precious stones. Here's a wish: May we keep the earth cool enough that this wondrous geometer can play, day after winter's day, far, far into the future.

UPDATE: Writing this post brought back memories of a visit to the Exploratorium in San Francisco a long time ago, and an exhibit in which a sheet of cooled water froze in a flash. The speed with which crystals spread was surprising, though it makes sense, given how fast chemical reactions flash through our bodies to form thoughts and actions. I called the Exploratorium to ask for a video of the phenomenon, and they quickly responded. The exhibit is called Watch Water Freeze, and the inventor demonstrates the secret of the flashfreeze--supercooled water--at 7:35 in this video. Nature's combination of craftsmanship and speed is deceptive. The crystals in the photos above appear finely wrought, but it's possible they, too, were crafted in an instant.

And might our creative process work the same way, that the mind becomes super-saturated with thoughts and experience, until some catalyzing moment arrives when all crystalizes in a flash of insight?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nature's Capacity to Heal: A Post-Election Nature Walk


After a traumatic campaign season and startling conclusion, many of us took to the light--filled Herontown Woods the following Sunday, Nov. 13, to experience the restorative powers and sanity of nature. 35 of us walked the yellow trail, which passes by some of the finest features of the preserve. We found that, despite the seismic political changes afoot, trees continue to grow, the water flows,

and boulders give a sense of firmament in an unstable world.

Most of these photos--the ones with a date stamp--were sent to me afterwards by CW. At first, I thought this one was of pebbles in the stream.

On a nature walk, there's time for kindness, and working together to overcome obstacles.

There was time to point out all the habitat restoration work our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit has been doing, and how the deer, in a rare collaboration, have been nibbling down the resprouts on the winged euonymus shrubs we cut. No deer have as yet come forward to join our board, however.

I pointed out how Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve, dating back to the Veblens' pioneering donation of 82 acres in 1957, connects to other more recently acquired properties, including DR Greenway's All Saints Church tract just to the west.


One of the participants, Ed Simon, shared a couple stories, including how farmers in this part of town would bring herring from the coast to fertilize the less than optimal soil. The resulting smell led to the name Herringtown for this northeastern part of Princeton.

The odor is long gone, but rock walls dividing the fields can still be found among all the trees that have grown up since, and what we call the Veblen cottage was one of the farmhouses, dating back to 1875.

Ed leads the informal Friends of Gulick Park group, which maintains and improves trails in the Gulick Preserve, on the other side of Smoyer Park from Herrontown Woods. He also told of the forest village that appeared in Gulick Preserve this summer, built by teenage girls and based on Narnia.


After the walk, many of us gathered next to the Veblen House for cookies, cider, conversation,

and a visit to the pawpaw patch we planted January 3rd, just down from the Veblen House. That's board member Kurt Tazelaar pointing off into the distance, likely towards other areas of the grounds that we're in the process of restoring.

Thanks to all who came out and shared company, spirit and insight to make it such a rewarding walk on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Veblen House Written Up in Area Magazine


Now, isn't that weird. I could have sworn there was an article about the Veblen House and cottage in the latest edition of Weird N.J.

Oh, right,

there it is,

page 62,

a lovely four page spread,

right between a pictorial portrait of the Overbrook sanitorium and a man who gave his left arm for Asbury Park.

Weird N.J. is a beautifully rendered magazine edited by Mark and Mark (Sceurman and Moran), who clearly love our state as an bottomless trove of weirdness in truth and legend. Whether buildings or people, we all are worked on by a mixture of care and neglect, elements and time. It's truly weird that buildings and a legacy as distinctive and extraordinary as those Veblen left behind have been neglected, and so we're proud to be part of this edition of Weird N.J. Our aim, passion and privilege, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods, is to make care the dominant influence going forward.

The photos and writeups are by FOHW volunteer Glen Ferguson and myself. I bought a copy online for $7, free shipping, at this site.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Early Fall in Herrontown Woods


These are photos from recent walks in Herrontown Woods. With most trees still green, the early turnings really stick out. In fall, the woods becomes color coded, with each kind of tree or shrub announcing its identity, so that one can grasp their numbers in a single glance. Here's a radiant dogwood, all alone with its bright orange.

Closer to the Veblen cottage, a similarly intense flash of bright red in deep woods turned out to be a black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica).

Mushrooms cluster in aesthetic ways on fallen logs,

and stumps,

or rise straight from the earth.

All that sequestered carbon in fallen trees slowly gets consumed, metabolized, and returned to the air, in time to be photosynthesized back into sugars by the trees and other plants, in a cycle that's as beautiful intellectually as it is aesthetically. How incredibly elegant that the carbon in wood yields its energy to living things, then "takes wing" as a gas to drift skyward and be so naturally and effortlessly delivered to plants for reincorporation into living tissue.

At Veblen House, the butternuts had a good year, after we gave them more protection from the deer.











The last photo is of a Kentucky Coffee Tree, discovered growing in the field next to the Veblen House. Its 3 foot long, many leafleted leaves make patterns on the patterned sky in late afternoon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Mushroom Walk at Herrontown Woods, Sunday, Sept. 25


Update: Not many mushrooms today, given the dry weather, but Philip will talk about mushrooms nonetheless, and there's plenty of other things to see at Herrontown Woods.

Come one, come all to the merry mushroom walk this Sunday, Sept. 25, at 2pm, co-led by mushroom expert Philip Poniz and naturalist Steve Hiltner. For safety's sake, we'll be digesting the names and stories of any mushrooms encountered, not the mushrooms themselves. We're hoping the mushrooms will rise to the occasion, and yesterday's rain should help. But if they are few, the walk will be more generally about the natural and historic splendor of Herrontown Woods.

Afterwards, there will be light refreshments on the Veblen House grounds.

The walk is free, though donations large and small are welcome to support restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of Herrontown Woods, Princeton's first nature preserve.

Meet at the Herrontown Woods parking lot, across Snowden Lane from Smoyer Park. Maps can be found at http://www.fohw.org/p/maps. html.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Herrontown Woods Gets a New Sign!


Thanks to friend of the preserve, Timothy Andrews, who posted on the Friends of Herrontown Woods facebook page about the decaying preserve sign at the preserve entry on Snowden Lane. He ultimately contacted the county and asked them to replace the sign. He got quick action as a new sign appeared within days, with an attractive font declaring, simply "HERRONTOWN WOODS ARBORETUM."

Some of us on the FOHW board noticed that the sign wasn't visible from one side,

thus commencing a How-many-board-members-does-it-take-to-cut-back-foliage episode, which had a happy ending.

The old sign may well have dated back to the Veblens' original donation of the first 80 acres back in 1957.

It looked a little better on the side less exposed to the elements, but the replacement was greatly needed. That the county is not mentioned on the new sign may relate to the likely transfer of the park to Princeton municipality at some future point.

The "Arboretum" portion of the name dates back to the beginning, though the now 140 acre preserve lacks any traditional cultivation of trees. A stand of white pines planted in Veblen's time near the parking lot has largely been blown down by storms. Any trees that have been planted by our Friends group are native, and are intended to blend into the natural setting rather than be shown off as specimens. Examples are butternuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts and pawpaws planted near the Veblen House.

Thanks again to Timothy for his initiative and the county for their response.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

New, Simplified Color Coding for Herrontown Trails

One longterm goal of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, as it continues to care for both Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, has been to simplify the color coding for trails. As of September, 2016, we now have a fully marked red trail that begins and ends at the main parking lot, and a yellow inner loop that branches off the red trail and features lovely views of the stream, boulder field, and historic quarry sites. The blue trail is now limited to the north side of the pipeline right of way. For those winter and spring seasons when the soil is saturated with water (good for the watershed, not so great for hiking), a trail marked with red and white signs will now provide a way to bypass the wettest parts of the red trail. The red, yellow, blue, and red/white trails are now fully marked. Short connector trails have white markers, and a couple have been closed off to simplify the trail system.

The map below illustrates the changes.




We aim for clarity without becoming too intrusive with signage. Markers vary in height, so when you reach an intersection, give a good look around to figure out which way to go next.

Enjoy the trails, and contact us with any feedback.

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.