Sunday, August 31, 2014

Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine

Late August is right about the time the Veblens would have been heading back to Princeton from a summer in Maine, at their cottage overlooking the ocean in Brooklin. Assumptions that the old cottage would have been demolished and replaced with an upscale structure (see below) fortunately proved wrong. Thanks to friends Scotia and Dick, who researched the cottage while visiting Brooklin this summer, we now know that, though the cottage was later winterized and added on to, it's still standing and in good repair, on its perch overlooking the ocean.
The one-story section is likely the original cottage. (Update: Some photos left by the Veblens to be part of a museum at Veblen House and now at the IAS suggest the 2-story portion may be original as well.) Gordon Davisson, the nephew of Elizabeth Veblen's niece, told me he remembered visiting the cottage as a child, and was very impressed by what seemed to him a massive wood stove.
The chimney is in fine shape.
Off in the distance is a shed with similar window treatments, suggesting it was originally part of the same property.
Here is the view of the ocean from the cottage. Thanks to Dick Blofson for the photos, to Scotia for all her sleuthing to track down the cottage, and the people at the Brooklin Keeping Society for their well-kept historical documents and memories.

(Below is an email I received a year ago from the Keeping Society's Richard Freethey, who has since passed away.)
"I asked one of our volunteers who knows more about Brooklin history than anyone. She is around 85. She says her grandfather Walter Crockett did some carpentry work on the cabin for the Veblens. She said they were very quiet and not at all public people who lived a very simple life while they were here. Of course the property was on one of the prettiest spots on Blue Hill Bay, with the lighthouse in the background and the mountains of Mt Desert Island in the background... None of us know but we all suspect that his cabin was replaced by something not as rustic.

June (the volunteer lady) said that some publication she remembered had a picture of Dr Veblen on the beach beside his cabin, but we looked in our files and couldn't come up with it. If we do, I'll let you know."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William Albert Hiltner Turns 100

A bit of a personal note. My father, William Albert Hiltner, turns 100 today. (He's on the far left in the photo.) I wish he were still around to celebrate it, but even though he died 23 years ago, the day still has meaning.

Somewhat akin to Oswald Veblen, he became a prominent academic after growing up in midwest farm country, a descendent of farmers and carpenters. Whereas Veblen went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, my father got his first job there some 40 years later, first as an instructor and later as professor of astronomy. In the 1940s, that meant moving to Wisconsin, where U of Chicago had its world famous Yerkes Observatory, with its largest of refracting telescopes and clear, "photometric" winter skies making it a center of research. There's a Wisconsin connection for the Veblens, it having been where Oswald's grandparents first settled after immigrating from Norway. Also like Veblen, my father assumed leadership roles, first as director of Yerkes and later as head of AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

He loved the outdoors, sailing, and took us on whitewater canoeing trips in northern Wisconsin even though he didn't know how to swim. Some of my fonder memories are of volunteers working together to get the piers and tents ready each year for girl scouts at a camp in northern Wisconsin--the sort of hands-on group effort Veblen may have been getting at when he'd organize colleagues for ventures into the Institute woods to clear brush. Such group effort is rarer today, removed as we are several generations more from the barn raisings of America's rural past.

Among other parallels was the influence that work for the military had on my father's approach to science. This is described in an online bio at the American Astronomical Society website:
"During World War II Al was engaged in the production of front surface mirrors, and in military optics design and modeling, an experience which influenced his later interest in astronomical instrumentation." 
Veblen's vision for an institute for advanced study was influenced by the informal atmosphere he found while working at a military proving grounds to improve ballistics during WWI. It was also the vast computations required to create trajectory tables for artillery that gave Veblen and appreciation for early computer designs.

My father's passion for his work extended from research, to teaching, to the hands-on aspects of instrument design. He maintained a youthfulness and inquisitiveness to the end, learning to swim at age 64, and spending the last seven years of his life as project manager for the Magellan Project, designing twin telescopes to be built on a mountain in Chile. 

These qualities are shared by Veblen, who made important contributions to mathematics but also lent early support to computer research, at a time when the potential of computers was far from obvious. Quoting from Deane Montgomery's obituary for Veblen in the Bulletin of American Mathematics, 
"Veblen remained rather youthful in his point of view to the end, and he was often amused by the comments of younger but aging men to the effect that the great period for this or that was gone forever. He did not believe it. Possibly part of his youthful attitude came from his interest in youth; he was firmly convinced that a great part of the mathematical lifeblood of the Institute was in the flow of young mathematicians through it."
It's this forward looking point of view, this capacity to see a path forwards and willingness to take on all the obstacles in that path, that I most admire in these men, and those who are working together to preserve and repurpose the house and farmstead the Veblens left to the public trust.

The Origins of the Veblen House's Eastern European Elements

 Over the years, I've shown the Veblen House to quite a few architects and carpenters. All have commented on its unique style. None have seen anything like it. One recently said it reminded him stylistically of wooden houses built in eastern Europe. I usually explain its uniqueness by telling the fourth hand story that a Russian cabinet maker is said to have spent two years working on the house.

But who would have thought to bring a Russian cabinet maker to the States to labor long on refinements for this house in the woods on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. Not Veblen, it turns out, but one Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart, who originally brought this prefab house to Princeton and lived in it with his family before selling to the Veblens. For six years since discovering the house and working to save it, I felt no curiosity about the house's original owner. Stuart remained a footnote, a warmup act for the main draw.
 The additive power of so many comments by professionals about the house's uniqueness finally prompted me to ask who was that "masked man" with the long name, who brought house and family to live briefly in Princeton, sold to the Veblens, then vanished. From the self-descriptions below, found only after searching far and wide (via google), Whiton-Stuart turns out to share many traits with Veblen. He was a world traveler, a fine marksman, with a strong interest in mathematics. He came from a prosperous family, thrived in cultural centers, took an interest in fine buildings, but also was drawn to the outdoors.

Harvard University published reports every five years on what its graduates were doing. Though JP Whiton-Stuart left Harvard after his first year, he continued to be considered a member of the class of 1898, and fortunately sent in a couple reports. Both reports predate his family's move to Princeton.

Harvard Class of 1898, 2nd Report (1908)

"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."

Harvard Class of 1898, 3rd Report (1913)

"I left Harvard on account of illness, and travelled when not in or preparing for Williams and Cambridge, England. I saw Russia, Armenia, all of Europe, the Far East three times, the Holy Land, Greece and was one of few that crossed Persia to the Gulf, also West and Africa. I was a real estate specialist for ten years in New York, and am still president of the J.P. Whiton-Stuart Company, New York, where I saved enough to buy a herd of cattle in Arizona. I now live on a horse's back, riding over one hundred square miles of cattle range I rent from the United States government in the largest forest in the United States. Member: Union Club of New York, Yavapai Club of Prescott, Ariz."