A vision for Herrontown Woods begins with the vision of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who donated the first 82 acres in 1957, creating Princeton's and Mercer County's first nature preserve. That initial donation can be considered the founding of the open space movement in Mercer County. More locally in Princeton, it inspired acquisition of other lands bordering the preserve, leading ultimately to the preservation of an extensive corridor of open space extending west to Bunn Drive and east to the Millstone River. The Friends of Herrontown Woods seeks to honor and extend the Veblens' initial vision. Though focusing on Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, 230 acres total, we also seek to improve connectedness with the corridor of open space extending beyond these two core preserves.

Cultural and Natural Zones at Herrontown Woods

The popularity and rapid evolution of the Botanical Art Garden (Barden for short) at Herrontown Woods has led to viewing Herrontown Woods as having two zones--one cultural, the other natural. The cultural zone is roughly triangular in shape, bounded by the Barden (Botanical ARt garDEN), Veblen Cottage farmstead, and the Veblen House. It's a place where people and nature can actively interact and collaborate to create beautiful landscapes that stir curiosity and the imagination. The goal is to ultimately make the cultural zone accessible to a broad range of mobilities, while the rest of the preserve has a natural and wild feel, with narrower and sometimes rocky trails.

Veblen House and Cottage, and the Princeton Botanical Art Garden
Conceived in 2017 as an "intro to Herrontown Woods" where visitors can learn about native plants and habitats, the botanical garden developed an artistic and whimsical dimension during the pandemic in 2020. Evolving organically, it has become a place where nature and culture collaborate, and where kids and adults can relax and explore. Veblen House has been initially serving as an "inside out" museum, with a "windows into the past" exhibit on the Veblens' lives and legacies posted on the windows. The Veblen House will be rehabilitated, with potential uses ranging from caretaker's residence to a place for meetings, talks and small performances. The cottage is an intact example of 19th century small landholder farming culture in Princeton, and will serve additionally as a place for art and nature learning.

Outdoor Classes and Performances
With the Veblen House and Cottage undergoing repair, the grounds of the Veblen House became in 2021 a site for outdoor yoga classes, book talks, and performances of music and theater. The beauty and tranquility of Herrontown Woods proved a perfect setting for these events.

Additional components of the vision:

  • A Bringing Together: What happens when we bring mathematicians together (as Veblen did at Old Fine Hall), Old and New World together (in the 1930s Princeton math department, the Veblens' marriage, and the Veblen House’s features), mind and body together (Oswald was known as the "woodchopping professor"), parcels together (to create open space), nature and culture together (in Princeton at Herrontown Woods, Mountain Lakes, the Princeton Battlefield, the Johnson Education Center)? This theme, running through the Veblens' lives, gains ever more relevance in an increasingly fragmented world. The Veblen House is a key destination along an extraordinary corridor of preserved open space. In its tranquil setting, it is seen as a future meeting place for the community, for cultural events and for neighborhood dinners.
  • Mathematics: There is romance in numbers, from the numerical discipline within which Shakespeare spun his timeless webs, to the measuring and 3-dimensional envisioning of carpentry, to the mathematics underlying nature, and a charming story called The Dot and The Line. Mathematics may have brought the Veblen House to Princeton. A prefab, it arrived in pieces with J.P. Whiton-Stuart, whose interest in mathematics may have influenced his move to Princeton with his wife Mary in the 1930s. We look forward to exploring all these dimensions of mathematics, in programming and as Veblen did, during meditative walks through Herrontown Woods.

  • Nature and Culture: The nature of Herrontown Woods cannot be fully understood without exploring its cultural history of farming and quarrying. Sustainability calls on us to explore how best to be part of nature, not separate from it. At Herrontown Woods, culture is woven into the landscape, as rock walls from past farms, evidence of quarrying on some boulders, an old swimming pool that became critical habitat for amphibians, and most clearly in the Veblen House and cottage themselves. Oswald Veblen had a passion for mathematics, nature and buildings.

  • Legacy and Generations: How Veblen's legacy is viewed may speak to how our legacies will be viewed in the future. Veblen, the visionary in academics, math, computers, and land preservation, played a role in building the American century. What sort of century will we build, and how do the insights of past generations and the prospects of future generations inform how we live our lives?
  • The Veblen Cottage--Actually an 1875 farmhouse, well built of wood that has survived neglect, hearkens back to an era of self-sufficient farms along the ridge. It was built around 1875, five years before Oswald Veblen was born. 19th century features include balloon framing and brick nogging. One family that lived there in the 1930s would invite Einstein in for a sandwich when he was walking by. Veblen used the cottage as a study, heated by a wood stove in the winter. Its simplicity contrasts with the opulence of his design for Old Fine Hall on the Princeton campus. Now surrounded by woods, with a small barn and corncrib nearby, it represents a simple lifestyle, elements of which can inform sustainability in our own more urban lives. FOHW seeks initially to stabilize and weatherize the structure, to preserve it as a landmark that speaks to the era of micro-farming common in the Herrontown neighborhood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. FOHW envisions the cottage as a place for nature learning, art, and a chance to rehabilitate a last remaining example of a 19th century small landholder's dwelling along the Princeton ridge.
  • Open Space Infrastructure for eastern Princeton: Though the western half of Princeton has Mountain Lakes House, Clark House, the Updike Farmstead, and the Johnson Education Center, eastern Princeton lacks any buildings to complement its extraordinary system of open space preserves and trails. The Veblen House and cottage can help reduce that disparity. A building out in nature serves as destination and launching pad for exploration of the surrounding preserve.
  • Partnering with nearby institutions: FOHW has collaborated with its neighbors: Stone Hill Church, and the Princeton Learning Cooperative, housed in All Saints Church. Both serve the home-school community in the Princeton area. A home-schooler group meets regularly at the Barden. FOHW is collaborating with Princeton Community Village to better connect residents there to the nature preserve they border.
  • Restoring Habitat: Though more intact ecologically than most nature preserves, Herrontown Woods can benefit from removal of invasive plant species that do little to feed vital food chains. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has been very active in removing invasive species, first along long-blocked trails and now in woodlands and on the Veblen grounds. Various historic features around the Veblen House are now visible due to removal of invasive shrubs. At the Botanical Art Garden, invasive species have been removed and replaced by over 100 species of native plants.
  • Preserving Princeton's Cultural Heritage: Two traditions come together at the Veblen Farmstead--the micro-farming that was common in the Herrontown neighborhood of northeastern Princeton in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the movement of European intelligencia to Princeton in the 20s and 30s that Veblen did so much to facilitate. Einstein was a close friend of Veblen's, and a frequent visitor. The "house in the middle of the woods" is also a European tradition, which Veblen's Scandinavian heritage speaks to. Elizabeth Veblen grew up in Yorkshire, England, and became a central figure in Princeton's social circles.
  • Sustainability: Repurposing found materials is a central theme of our work. The long neglected preserve and its house and cottage are essentially a "found" space, to which we have added a rescued gazebo and shed for the botanical garden, and countless other useful items gleaned from curbsides. Our aim is to demonstrate the many home and landscaping practices that come under the broad heading of sustainability. Off-the-grid living, low-maintenance landscaping, demonstrating home energy monitors, utilizing urban timber, fixing slightly broken items for reuse--these are some of the projects that would show how to shift towards lifestyles that will leave a healthy planet in our wake. Relevant to this cause, the phrase "conspicuous consumption" was coined by Veblen's uncle Thorstein in The Theory of the Leisure Class.
  • Prefab Architecture: The Veblen House is a prefab moved from Morristown, NJ and reassembled on the outskirts of Princeton in 1931. Its double wall construction, with what appears to be decay-resistant chestnut boarding inbetween, has contributed to its resilience. A system of vents appears to have contributed to keeping it comfortable. Inventive architecture to solve today's sustainability and social needs can be another theme.
  • Creative, low-cost repair: New Jersey has an abundance of historic structures, many of which deteriorate for lack of funds and vision. Some get rehabilitated, but often at great expense. While governments and larger nonprofits have shown little interest in small historic buildings like Veblen House, small organizations like Friends of Herrontown Woods can demonstrate lower cost methods of repair and reuse that will broaden the safety net for New Jersey's historic structures.
  • Gardening: Elizabeth Veblen was an avid gardener. Both the Dogwood Garden Club and the Garden Club of Princeton were active on the grounds in years past. Gardening, whether it be Elizabeth's beloved daffodils or a demonstration of native landscaping and permaculture, is an important component of the vision. Already, the Friends of Herrontown Woods has discovered and protected native orchids growing in the field near the Veblen House, and has planted raingardens, native chestnuts, butternuts, hazelnuts, and a pawpaw patch. Elizabeth "May" Veblen's vegetable and propagation garden, visible on old aerials, has been cleared of invasive species and in 2023 became the site of a vegetable garden once again.