Sunday, February 23, 2020

President Eisgruber Praises Veblen Legacy in the 2020 State of the University Report

2020 is looking like a good year for Oswald Veblen, whose 140th birthday we'll be celebrating in June. For those who like numbers, mathematicians or not, Veblen's life and career are framed by round numbers. He was born in 1880, began graduate work in mathematics in 1900, became emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1950, and died at his Brookin, Maine cottage in 1960.

Some deeply gratifying news came recently in the form of Princeton University's annual State of the University letter, in which President Eisgruber puts the legacy of Oswald Veblen front and center in a moving discourse on "the values and qualities that define us as a university."

Eisgruber describes Veblen as "a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy" who "probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University." That's some high praise.

As Princeton University embarks on a new round of building, President Eisgruber pointed to Veblen's visionary role nearly a century ago:

"At a time when many Princeton professors had no offices and worked from home, Veblen imagined something novel: a building dedicated to mathematics and designed to generate intellectual community and exchange."

"Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later."
Citing Elyse Graham's articles in the Princeton Alumni Weekly about Veblen, the State of the University report also praises "Veblen's humanitarian courage," demonstrated through his early efforts to aid the careers of brilliant women and African American mathematicians, and his
"critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe. Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history."
The Friends of Herrontown Woods first heard that Veblen would be featured in the President's report a couple weeks prior, when the university's science writer contacted us to ask permission to use some of the photos on our website. As our nonprofit begins repairs on the long-neglected Veblen House and Cottage in Herrontown Woods, we are tremendously heartened to witness the ongoing rediscovery of Oswald Veblen's quietly extraordinary legacy, beginning with writings and presentations by George Dyson and others at the Turing Centennial Conference in 2012, articles by Alyse Graham in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and now this wonderful tribute to Veblen woven into President Eisgruber's State of the University letter.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Clearing Brush at Veblen Cottage

We could have had a javelin throwing contest, with all the sticks piled on the Veblen Cottage grounds, or studied the arc the branches made as we tossed them over the fence, as Veblen did with projectiles when he led a crew of mathematicians during WWI that helped improve understanding of ballistics.

But our main task for a Sunday afternoon was to clear years of accumulated brush from the cottage grounds. The easiest and most rewarding thing to do with it all was to toss it over the fence. Fortunately, the land on the other side of the fence is part of Herrontown Woods as well, and the resident wildlife will still have the benefit of cover the brush affords while we clean up the cultural landscape around the farmstead Oswald Veblen used as a study.

The workday was catalyzed by Rose and her mathematician husband Martin, who contacted us about volunteering. Thanks to friends who joined in: Kathryn, Victoria, Marian, Andrew and John.

The results exceeded our expectations. Most of the branches had been from Japanese maples that, though pretty in the fall, had begun to spread into the surrounding woodlands.

A surprise find under all the brush was the remains of a persimmon grove, whose distinctive chunky bark is still recognizable on the fallen logs. This is the second persimmon grove discovered at Herrontown Woods. The first is located halfway down the trail to the parking lot, and still has some living trees.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Princeton Council Votes to Lease Veblen House and Cottage to FOHW

On Monday, Jan. 27, many supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods gathered at Princeton council chambers for a public hearing on Ordinance 2020.2. The palindromic arrangement of the digits would have pleased mathematician Oswald Veblen, but even more pleasing was the contents of the ordinance--language that would allow FOHW to lease and begin repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage. Already two hours into the meeting, with an agenda that looked like it would stretch far into the night, council members' faces brightened as the lease ordinance came up for discussion. A number of supporters of FOHW--Steve Hiltner, Inge Regan, Pallavi Nuka, Andrew Thornton, and Clifford Zink--rose to speak, telling council what Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings mean to them. Kip Cherry listed some of the highlights of Oswald Veblen's influential career. When public comment was complete, council members David Cohen and Mia Sacks praised the work of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. Even before being elected to council, Mia Sacks played an important role in rallying support for our efforts to save Veblen House. Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. 

Below is the text from comments by FOHW president, Steve Hiltner:
First I'd like to express gratitude for the work that David Cohen and Marc Daschield put in as we developed the lease over the past year. It was a pleasure to work with you, and I look forward to more interactions as we move forward. I also want to thank all of the supporters on council and in the community, the angel donors and other contributors who have stepped forward and have shown a belief in us and our work, the board members and all the other volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods who have helped us reach this point where our nonprofit can at last have a formalized arrangement for repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage for the public benefit.

We are a small organization, formed seven years ago. I like to think of us as the Little Engine that Could, because we stepped into a void that no local institution, government, or existing nonprofit was willing to fill. Back in 2013, Herrontown Woods--Princeton's first nature preserve, donated by the Veblens 55 years earlier--had been abandoned. The nature trails were impassible, the buildings boarded up and overgrown. Into that void stepped a few of us volunteers, in particular Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, who made the trails passable once again. Now, the buildings that the Veblens donated along with the land await our focused attention.
Some people may ask what value a couple old houses out in the woods could possibly have for the community. The Veblen House has been boarded up for 22 years, the Cottage for 60. We sometimes think of buildings as contrary to the goal of open space, but in fact they can be complementary. Where do people who love open space gather? Think of Clark House at the Battlefield, Mountain Lakes House at Mountain Lakes, the Johnson Education Center at Greenway Meadows, the Updike Farmstead.

All of these examples of how a historic building can complement open space are, by the way, on the west side of Princeton. On the east side of Princeton, it's a different story. We can be grateful that more than 500 acres of open space have been preserved in eastern Princeton, yet no functional building is available to complement that land. That is what the Veblens were trying to provide when they donated the buildings so long ago, and that vision is what the Friends of Herrontown Woods now wants to see realized.

I like to think of the Veblen House and Cottage as two riddles that have sat quietly in Herrontown Woods all this time, waiting to be solved. They have so many stories to tell. As we research the history of the houses, the people who lived in them, and the eras they were built in, they are becoming like a Magic Schoolbus that can take us sailing back to distant times and forgotten worlds. They are our windows into the past, and can teach lessons that will carry us into the future.

As we maintain trails and repair the buildings the Veblens left behind, we see ourselves as setting a stage at Herrontown Woods, for exploring nature and history, for learning and artistic endeavors, for social events, or for solitude and quiet contemplation.

In 2017, Princeton council stepped up and helped us save the buildings from demolition, and we thank you for your support now, as we begin finally to put these buildings on the positive trajectory they have patiently awaited and so very much deserve.

Stephen K. Hiltner, president, Friends of Herrontown Woods