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