Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reminiscences of a Friend and Neighbor of Elizabeth Veblen's

As chance would have it, a woman who knew Elizabeth Veblen lives three doors up from me. I was told about her by a former tenant of the Veblen House, and was finally able to meet with her this past July to learn something of her memories of the Veblens. She wishes to remain anonymous, but I can say that she is a painter, 81 years old, and once lived in the Herrontown area not far from the Veblens. Elizabeth would have her over for tea sometimes. They shared a common origin--Yorkshire, England. One or both of them were specifically from Halifax, in West Yorkshire.

Here are my notes, with question marks where there is some uncertainty about what was said or known. Some useful chronology: The Veblens bought the house in 1941. Oswald lived until 1960, Elizabeth until 1974.

General memories about the Veblens:
  • Elizabeth met Oswald Veblen in Germany (?)
  • The Veblens arrived in Princeton before there were any cars, and would go into town on a horse and carriage.
  • The Veblen House was a weekend retreat. The Veblens had a busy social life while Oswald was alive.
Memories particular to her visits with Elizabeth:
  • Elizabeth had a maid who made tea. Elizabeth would have a fire burning, and they'd sit in comfortable chairs near the fire in the living room.
  • Elizabeth gave the painter's 2 year old daughter a dress.
  • She describes Elizabeth as unprepossessing, down to earth, direct, straightforward, not fancy, very pleasant.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Biographical Information About Oswald Veblen

Here's a link sent to me by a friend, compiling biographical information about Oswald Veblen (1880-1960), including his birthplace, publications, some correspondence, and obituary.

Veblen Designed the Old Fine Hall

This from page 50 of A Beautiful Mind, the book about John Nash:

"Designed by Oswald Veblen, a nephew of the great sociologist Thorstein Veblen, it was meant to be a sanctuary that mathematicians would be "loath to leave.""

And from a page on the Princeton University website:

"Veblen was instrumental both in envisioning the Institute before the circumstances led to its creation as well as in the design of Fine Hall and in the initial selection of members for the Institute."

"In the 1930s, a remarkable mathematical community was born in a building built specifically to house such an unusual community: Fine Hall at Princeton University (now Jones Hall, reverting to the donors' names with the construction of the new Fine Hall and Jadwin Physics complex in 1970). The Mathematics Department of Princeton University, then emerging as a world class center for mathematics, shared its new quarters with the Department of Mathematics of the Institute for Advanced Study for six years while the latter's facilities (Fuld Hall) were planned and constructed nearby. During this period, the beginning of which saw the arrival from Europe of Einstein and Gödel, Fine Hall served as a mathematical club in which graduate students, faculty, Institute members, and many visitors mingled together in an atmosphere of exchange, including close ties with the adjoining Palmer Hall and its physics community, including some joint members of both the math and physics departments."

The old Fine Hall is located next to the Frist Center on campus.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Laying Plastic in the Crawlspace

This is the walkway that Einstein walked on his way to visit his friend and colleague, Oswald Veblen, who lived here with his wife Elizabeth. When Elizabeth died in 1972, she donated the farmstead to Mercer County. The Veblens had previously donated the land known as Herrontown Woods to the county, and their desire was to see the house and cottage be turned into a nature center.

Local arborist Bob Wells lived in the house for some 25 years, and raised his family there. But after Bob moved out, the house was left boarded up and empty. Vandalism and neglect have taken their toll, but people have come forward of late to help stabilize its condition and find a new use for the house and farmstead.

The first step is to dry out the basement, which means improving drainage around the house. The copper roof gutters are long since gone, and downpours deposit great amounts of water next to the foundation.

This past weekend, Josh and Liz helped extend a ditch for carrying water away from the house.

Meanwhile, Madeline and I worked to spread black plastic over the dirt crawlspace, to serve as a vapor barrier and hopefully keep the floor joists a little drier. Not exactly glamorous work, but a little cooler than most activities in this fiercely hot weather.

The next step will be changing the contour of the ground around the house, so that runoff from all the land sloping towards the house can be routed away. That may take help from a county crew with a backhoe.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Fix-It Club

One idea relevant to the Veblen House is the Fix-It Club. The Fix-It Club concept involves rescuing stuff headed for the landfill that deserves a second life. Participants bring stuff that can be easily repaired to a workshop, and share tools, knowledge and conversation while fixing the stuff up.

On June 17, we had our first Fix-It Club meeting in my garage. Here is the "diagnostic center"--a solid oak table I rescued from the curb that's in need of a bit of glue. In the meantime, it's a handy surface for setting tools, abandoned A/C units, lamps and what have you. A Kill-a-Watt meter allowed us to measure energy use of the various items.

A couple hours of light work, expedited in particular by my neighbor Mark, who has insight into electronics, expanded our inventory of functional items to two microwaves, a mini-frig, two computer monitors and two lamps. A couple fans also turned out to work just fine, but still need cleaning. Liz and Jill came by to help out.

There is, of course, the question of how to find these items new homes. But the front side of the project--the rescuing and repairing--turns out to be straightforward and rewarding.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Veblen House and Farmstead

Seeing as this is a website about efforts to restore the Veblen House and develop a vision for the farmstead, it might be a good idea to actually include a photo of the Veblen House. Here it is from the side, in all its boarded up glory. Though the house has not been occupied for eleven years, and shows it, the European touches are still visible in the stair railing and in the woodwork inside.

Next to the house is a horse run--essentially a very well-built circular wall in which horses were once exercised. Andrew Thornton is in the process of removing the wisteria that has run rampant over this area. Beyond the horse run is the footprint where a large barn once stood, now grown up in trees.

In the absence of human occupation, nature has moved in. Though the flash on my camera makes them look like exhibits in a museum, these are a couple of the flying squirrels found living in the small barn a month ago.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In the Beginning, There Was Drainage

This past Sunday, some progress at Veblen House. Andrew and I first installed a better ladder for accessing the basement. In keeping with the sustainability theme of the project, the ladder was rescued from the curb and is being given a second life.

The situation in the basement is something of an emergency. The floor joists are dripping wet from the humidity. One can see where runoff from outside flowed in through a vent, most likely from roof runoff that falls next to the foundation for lack of gutters.

In an email, architect friend Heidi recommended covering the bare dirt in the crawlspace with plastic. I've also put in a request to the county for roof gutters (the old copper ones long ago disappeared, probably stolen for their metal). In the meantime, it will be necessary to cover the ground next to the foundation with plastic so that the water pouring off the room during heavy rains can flow away from the house.

The step taken on Sunday was to dig the beginnings of a ditch to carry water away, so that at least it will not flow into the basement.

One idea Andrew had for the open field next to the Veblen House is a community garden. We visited the existing one nearby at the township's Smoyer Park, which may or may not be maxed out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Veblen Cottage and Barn

Located towards the edge of Herrontown Woods--a 100+ acre nature preserved donated to Mercer County by the Veblens, the Veblen farmstead includes a house, cottage, small barn and corn crib. Shown here is the cottage and, in the distance, the small barn. The two-story section of the cottage, and the barn, appear to be structurally solid, due to intact roofs. The floor joists of the cottage are a question mark, and will require an inspection of the basement.

Veblen used this cottage as his study. It dates back to the 1860s.

Veblen's Grandfather's House a National Landmark

Oswald Veblen comes from a prominent family. His uncle was Thorstein Veblen, an internationally renowned economist and author of "The Theory of the Leisure Class." For those of us entertaining the idea of turning the Veblen farmstead into a sustainability center, it's interesting to learn that Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption."

Veblen FarmThe home of Thomas and Kari Veblen (Oswald's grandfather), located in rural Rice County in southeastern Minnesota, went through a similar eleven year period of abandonment and decline before steps were taken to restore it. Now a national landmark, more information can be found at, the website from which this photo was borrowed.