THE VISION

Cultural and Natural Zones at Herrontown Woods

The popularity and rapid evolution of the Princeton Botanical Art Garden at Herrontown Woods has led to viewing the preserve as having two zones--one natural, the other cultural. The cultural zone is roughly triangular in shape, bounded by the 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 make the cultural zone accessible to a broad range of mobilities, while the rest of the preserve is more natural and wild, with narrow, rocky trails.

Veblen House and Cottage, and the Princeton Botanical Art Garden
Conceived in 2018 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 as a caretaker's residence and meeting space. 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.

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 (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 family 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 1975, 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 system of open space preserves and trails. The Veblen House and cottage can help reduce that disparity.
  • Partnering with nearby institutions: FOHW has collaborated with its neighbors: Stone Hill Church, the Princeton Learning Cooperative, housed in All Saints Church. Both serve the home-school community in the Princeton area. 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 natives.
  • 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. Demonstrating 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 from the 1920s, moved to Princeton from Morristown, NJ. 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 show no 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, will be 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.