Veblen House in Princeton should be preserved

To the Editor,

I first came to Princeton in 1953 I as a graduate student at the University and then as a a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. From 1958 to 1968 I taught at Brandeis University. I returned to Princeton in 1968 to join the faculty of the Princeton University Mathematics Department.

Princeton is a very special town principally because of the two great institutions: the University and the Institute for Advanced Study. These create a unique atmosphere and environment for study, research, learning, and teaching. This idyllic state was brought about, to a large extent, by the idealism, resourcefulness, and negotiating skills  of one remarkable individual: Oswald Veblen. Veblen was an outstanding mathematician and a naturalist.  He together with Dean Luther P. Eisenhart and Professor Henry Burchard Fine built up one of the greatest mathematics departments in the world. He convinced the Bamberger family to locate the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and he was very influential in formulating its mission.Veblen was keenly conscious of the esthetic, architectural, and natural environment which would inspire researchers and students.  He was deeply involved in the design of the od Fine Hall (now known as Jones Hall) which, for over half a century, was one of the great centers of mathematical research and teaching. To Veblen the natural environment was essential for the excellence of academic life. He donated his magnificent estate, known as the Herrontown woods together with his house to Mercer County. One of my fondest memories as a studnt and as a young faculty member is the walks and talks I had with colleagues, students, family, and friends in these woods. They were an essential part of the Princeton experience.

I am writing in strong support of the Friends of Herrontown Woods’ proposal to maintain and put to public use the Veblen buildings and grounds located on the edge of Mercer County’s Herrontown Woods. The buildings are in repairable condition and of great historical importance. Prof. Oswald and Mrs. Veblen gave the land and structures to Mercer County for the enjoyment of the public, thereby creating the first nature preserve in Princeton.  Better conservation and use of the Veblen grant will fill a void in infrastructure to complement open space in eastern Princeton, just as multiple buildings do in Princeton’s western section.  I would also wholeheartedly support Friends of Herrontown Woods’ purchase of the property from Mercer County for preservation and public use.

Now in their fifth year restoring and maintaining 210 acres of public preserves, with thousands of volunteer hours logged, the members of this nonprofit deserve a chance to extend their success to restoring the Veblen buildings as well. By focusing on Herrontown Woods, they have allowed other, larger organizations to focus on other priorities.

Their hands-on approach deepens bonds, instills work ethic, and allows mentoring between generations. This is what makes our community strong and resilient.

Their detailed proposal for structural restoration is solid and is the product of years of committed and unwavering visionary work and outreach for the good of the commons. It solves the long-lingering puzzle of how to utilize the Veblen buildings.

This dedicated group is doing wonderfull work for our community and they deserve our support.


Joseph J. Kohn
Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Princeton University


  1. many thanks to Prof. Kohn for his excellent and accurate letter; it would be a wonderful preservation achievement indeed to save the Veblen properties, so essential to Princeton history. I would add, however, that saving the buildings is only half the battle; the Veblens came to Mount Lucas because of its wild beauty, but sadly, the last undeveloped nearby acreage, the lovely Lanwin tract just uphill on Herrontown Road (home to rare virgin forest, wetlands, and threatened and endangered species) is in extreme danger of development by its owners, the Bryce Thompson family, who want to build dozens of McMansions there. This would forever deface the last great open section of the Princeton Ridge and make a mockery of everything the Veblens loved and worked for. Please support the Veblen project; please oppose the destruction of the Lanwin lands.

    1. It is my understanding that Sally and Kurt Tazelaar work every Sunday there, rain or shine, trying to clean up the paths, etc. Everybody is welcome to join them and help out while in the outdoors, and also, of course, donations to the non-profit are very much appreciated.

Comments are closed.