SAVING VEBLEN HOUSE: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

After receiving many emails from supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods' initiative to begin repairing the Veblen House and related structures, Mercer County's Administrator, Andrew Mair, sent out an April 25 memorandum. The Friends of Herrontown Woods did not receive a copy of the memo, but learned of it indirectly. Here is a response to the claims made in that memo.

A Win-Win-Win for Princeton, Mercer County, and Veblen House:

In recent years, as FOHW put in thousands of man-hours maintaining trails and conducting nature and conservation events for the public, we became concerned about the neglected structures on the Veblen property. As described in our detailed proposal of February 7, 2017, the structures were donated to the public by Prof. and Mrs. Veblen, with the express intent that they be conserved to further public education about the environmental preservation that was such an important part of the Veblens' life.  Further, the historical importance of the Veblens' work deserves on-site commemoration.  The public is so very fortunate to have these structures available.

We were asked by Mercer County to create a formal entity, to procure insurance, to put together a written proposal and budget, and to consider whether it would be possible for the land to be transferred, in order to reduce the County's exposure to risk and expense.  We did all of these things.  We also secured the pro bono services of a local zoning lawyer, to assist with the formalities.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is collaborative by nature, and has no interest in a litigious approach. We are puzzled and concerned that, as soon as our documents, including the requested insurance policies, were provided, the County seems to have preferred to cease interacting with us directly and even to adopt an adversarial tone.  Therefore, we do not know, since we have not been told, what the County intends, but we are puzzled by some of the apparent oversights and omissions in the Mair memo.

FOHW is not asking for any funding from county or town, but instead is offering to honor the wishes of the Veblens as described in their wills. For the past four years of sustained public service, FOHW has shown a singular capacity to honor those wishes. FOHW has presented a detailed proposal, has a proven track record, a vision for the buildings’ use, has sufficient funds to begin repairs, and has demonstrated broad public support that bodes well for raising additional funds as needed. As discussed previously with County officials, if the County has concerns, such as potential liability, that are leading the County to consider condemning the Veblen buildings, FOHW would be willing to accept a transfer, to it or to another entity, of the buildings and land.  If the County wishes, as discussed, the transfer could include an appropriate reversion clause. Whether by formal transfer, or by other appropriate arrangement pursuant to our 2/7/17 written proposal, FOHW has the capacity to meet the Veblens' intentions and expectations for the public use of their land and buildings, for the benefit of the public and without committing public resources.

Possible miscommunication skewing county decision-making? As will be described below, County decision-makers seem unaware of the services FOHW has been providing over the past four years. The primary County document, a 2011 Conditions Assessment prepared by an architectural firm, is skewed towards the negative. Some of its estimated repair costs exceed realistic estimates by an order of magnitude.  In addition, there is no evidence that the Mercer County Parks Commission, which has been charged by the County with preparing for, and possibly carrying out, demolition, was ever provided with any information about the Veblen buildings or the Friends of Herrontown Woods prior to their Dec. 7, 2016 decision to begin steps towards demolition.

The Veblen buildings’ structural status: There are five structures: house, cottage, garage, barn, and corncrib. The barn, corncrib and garage are in good condition. Despite its appearance, the house is structurally solid, with roof, foundation and weight-bearing walls intact, and interior wood floors, paneling and custom woodwork in good condition, owing to quality construction and the use of rot-resistant chestnut. The Veblen House has an unusual double-walled construction. The outer wall, which is what people see, was added primarily for insulation, and is not weight-bearing. It can be removed like a scab, and replaced. The cottage has an unusual balloon construction and can still be saved as an important landmark speaking to the land’s 19th century farm era.

Taking FOHW seriously: The County has yet to formally recognize FOHW’s service to date, although we had perceived that negotiations were productive--that is, until we procured insurance and submitted our proposal 12 weeks ago.  We have heard nothing since.

In fact, through resourcefulness and sweat equity, FOHW has for four years been doing the work necessary to live up to legal obligations and donor expectations when the County accepted the Veblens’ generous gifts of land and buildings in 1957 and 1974. Thus the nickname, “the Little Nonprofit That Could.” Having proven itself an able steward, FOHW is now offering to do the same with the buildings.

Who owns Veblen House? The memo assumes that Mercer County holds title to the 14 acre tract containing the Veblen House. But multiple attempts over the years to find the deed to the property have failed. Neither past planning director Donna Lewis nor a 20-year county employee could produce the deed. The 1974 Veblen will states that the Veblen House will be donated to the county for a “proposed library and museum of Herrontown Wood”, but no deed has been found.

A double standard regarding adherence to the Veblens’ last will and testament: The 4/25/17 Mair memo says nothing about the terms under which the Veblen House and associated land were donated to Mercer County. The Veblens expressed in legal documents their expectations regarding the land and, in Elizabeth Veblen’s will, expectations regarding Veblen House. In a 2011 management agreement between township and county, the County has delegated to Princeton the obligation to "manage and monitor Herrontown Woods in accordance with the terms and conditions of the deed of gift from Elizabeth and Oswald Veblen and the last will and testament of Elizabeth Veblen".  A similar arrangement with FOHW as to the buildings would live up to the Veblens’ expectations for the Veblen House.

The county’s response to FOHW’s 30 page proposal: The proposal was submitted to Mercer County on Feb. 7, 2017, eleven weeks before the date of Mr. Mair’s memo. 

The 2011 architectural assessment: The 4/25/17 Mair memo refers to cost estimates generated by "The Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen House and Cottage Conditions Assessment, prepared by Mills and Schnoering Architects.” This assessment only details the buildings' shortcomings. There is no positive language to alert county decision-makers to the high quality of construction or the custom craftsmanship inside the Veblen House. Numerous builders and architects have seen the Veblen House, and all have described it as architecturally unique, with extraordinary craftsmanship--not surprising given the wealth of the original owner.

The assessment makes some basic mistakes, misidentifying the materials used for interior walls and the roof of the Veblen House. The assessment says the roof is cedar shingle and urgently needs to be replaced. In fact, the roof is mostly metal, and is not leaking. The interior walls are misidentified as plaster, when in fact they are an early form of fiberboard used in prefabs.  The cost estimates to restore cedar shake roofs and hand-laid plaster walls are astronomical, and unwarranted.

In addition to the negative tone of the report, and its basic mistakes, the price estimates appear inflated. Costs are determined room by room, rather than, for instance, estimating a cost for painting the whole interior. Cost overruns of 50% are further added on top of the already unusually high cost estimates, so that when assumed cost overruns are factored in, some sample estimates are as follows:

  • new roof would cost $55,000 ($55/ft2),
  • $105,000 to repair and paint the wooden exterior,
  • $45,000 to repair windows that appear to need little more than new sills and some window panes,
  • $80,000 to repair and paint interior walls
  • $28,000 to refinish wood floors in a 2000 square foot house.
  • Some costs, such as $45,000 for mothballing the house, and $53,000 for raising the house, would be unnecessary under FOHW’s plan.

Even at what any homeowner in our town has experienced as "Princeton prices," in home repair quotes, these numbers are startlingly high.  In fact, they are about ten times what a competent home repair contractor would charge, let alone what an experienced volunteer team could accomplish. A closer look, then, brings into question any claim that the Conditions Assessment should be the last word, or even the first word, in determining actual cost of repairs.  There is no indication that the County made any attempt to question or analyze these figures.

County expectations present a moving target: Though the Mair memo correctly characterizes the 2013 meeting with Brian Hughes as advising FOHW to come up with “a plan of attack -- a work plan, schedule and fundraising plan/strategy”--the memo then adds new language stating that FOHW must “demonstrate the organization’s capacity to hire and manage appropriate professional contractors to do the work as outlined in the [2011] Conditions Assessment.”

This requirement was not in the original discussion. It has been a surprise to FOHW that, as FOHW delivers on items requested by the county, such as the proposal and necessary insurance, the county becomes less communicative and more resistant--the opposite of what one would expect. As FOHW clears hurdles, additional hurdles are placed in its path. There was never any stipulation that all the work must be done by professionals.  Professionals will likely be needed for some aspects of repair, and some have already offered to assist FOHW at reduced rates. As we have seen with the problematic aspects of the 2011 Conditions Assessment, skilled volunteers with intimate knowledge of the structures have an important role to play. Volunteer participation also provides opportunities for community building.

Degree of Renovation: There is a false assumption that the Veblen House and cottage must be completely restored, even restored to a condition that was not original: e.g., plaster walls.  The county itself has preserved aspects of historic buildings with no expectation of full restoration, and should show a similar flexibility when considering the Veblen buildings, particularly given the level of stewardship the county has shown towards the buildings since boarding them up in 1998.

FOHW, having witnessed how visitors appreciate the Veblen buildings in the landscape, even in their current state, understands that the buildings have something to offer at each stage of renovation. The buildings serve now as important landmarks, providing a sense of place, orientation, and history. And they will serve additional roles as they are repaired. An all-or-nothing expectation for immediate, full restoration simply doesn’t fit the current situation, especially when used as an excuse for doing nothing and demolishing the buildings.

By demanding that FOHW fully and immediately restore the buildings to their highest use, the county is expecting FOHW to move forward with an approach that the county--with its considerable resources--itself rejected. FOHW rightly offers a different approach that solves the problematic economics that caused the county itself to pursue other priorities.

Resistance to positive initiatives by FOHW: The Mair memo mentions a request by FOHW to allow a professional builder to weatherize the Veblen Cottage in 2015. FOHW put a great deal of effort into preparing that request, but the county’s insurance requirements were stringent beyond anything the builder had encountered before, and he refused to do the work. In another instance, FOHW requested county permission to apply for a $30,000 matching grant to begin repairs on the Veblen House. The county planning director said the amount was insufficient and refused permission.

Limiting communication: Communication has long been a problem. For a number of years, a member of FOHW was given access to the Veblen House and other buildings, but the locks were one day changed by staff without notice. The decision to commit county funds for preliminary steps towards demolition was made without contacting FOHW. FOHW was encouraged to obtain legal counsel, to assist in property transfer. When counsel was finally obtained, the county imposed a requirement to communicate only through counsel, greatly obstructing communication, and in fact has not communicated anything to our lawyer.

FOHW has long sought a positive, collaborative approach with Mercer County’s staff. There have been times when communication flowed fairly well, and FOHW humbly suggests that reviving such collaboration is in the public interest, given that FOHW has been working so hard to care for county-owned property.

The buildings’ historic value: FOHW’s research and consultation suggests that the county has consistently underestimated the quality, condition, historic value and potential of the Veblen buildings. As mentioned earlier, the 2011 Conditions Assessment only details the buildings' shortcomings. There is no positive language to alert county decision-makers to the high quality of construction or the custom craftsmanship inside the Veblen House, as for example can be seen in the many photographs illustrating our 2/7/17 proposal. 

Numerous builders and architects have seen the Veblen House, and all have described it as architecturally unique, with extraordinary craftsmanship--not surprising given the wealth of the original owner. It has chestnut wood trim, a fireplace mantel of Italian marble, two rooms with walls and ceiling paneled completely with finely wrought parquet, and distinctive doors and windows.

The Veblen House has an unusual history--fabricated offsite and brought to Princeton in the early 1930s from Morristown. All sorts of fascinating connections can be traced between its former occupants and both American and world history, as described in the research summarized in our 2/7/17 proposal.

Let’s move FOHWard!: With a detailed proposal, broad community support, a proven track record of able public service, and money in the bank, FOHW calls on Mercer County and Princeton to move forward, and give our nonprofit a deserved chance to save the cultural soul of Herrontown Woods, and provide eastern Princeton with valuable and historic infrastructure to complement the glorious corridor of preserved open space along the eastern Princeton Ridge.