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An open letter to Mercer County and Princeton officials regarding the Veblen House

We the undersigned are calling on Mercer County and Princeton to avert a great tragedy. The Veblen House and the Veblen cottage — two buildings of national historic merit — are being considered for demolition in eastern Princeton’s first and finest nature preserve, Herrontown Woods. Four years ago, when local governments and all other environmental nonprofits were putting their priorities elsewhere, the Friends of Herrontown Woods organized to clear the long-blocked trails of Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, to make these 210 acres of open space once again accessible to the public. Friends of Herrontown Woods has been maintaining and improving the trails and habitat ever since, leading nature walks and workdays, partnering with nearby schools, and researching the fascinating history of those who lived in the house and cottage.

Friends of Herrontown Woods has proven that, given a green light, its volunteers can work wonders on a shoestring, and it now seeks the green light to begin repairs of the Veblen House and cottage. The two structures — one a 1920s prefab with extraordinary custom interior woodwork, the other an 1875 farmhouse that speaks to a simpler era — are unique in Princeton. Together, they tell a story that stretches from dirt-poor farmers to Manhattan’s high society, from America’s first pilgrims. to America’s first computers. Both were purchased and lived in by the famous mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen, without whom Princeton would lack the Institute for Advanced Study, a world-class mathematics department, Albert Einstein’s long residency, and the 700 acres of protected land at the Institute Woods and Herrontown Woods. Veblen and his wife Elizabeth donated their house in 1974 to be utilized as a museum and library.

For decades, however, the Veblen House and cottage have been in limbo. Their owner, Mercer County, has long been pessimistic as to their condition and the cost of repair. There has also been a lack of appreciation for the importance of buildings in creating a sense of place on our public lands. Examples abound in western Princeton. Mountain Lakes House, the Johnson Education Center, Clark House, Updike Farm–all create a gathering place surrounded by wonderful open space. The Veblen House and cottage, in better condition than appearances suggest, are eastern Princeton’s only chance for a similar synergy of nature and culture.
The Friends of Herrontown Woods renovation of Herrontown Woods has been the story of the Little Nonprofit That Could. Where big budgets balked, a mix of can-do spirit, skill and sweat equity have succeeded. Other local examples — Montgomery’s 1860 House, and the bridges in Mountain Lakes — testify to how the paralyzing concerns over cost and liability can be overcome by allowing skilled and resourceful volunteers to do much of the work.

Two months ago, the Friends of Herrontown Woods presented a detailed proposal to Mercer County to acquire and repair the Veblen buildings through its own sweat equity and fundraising. After four years of devoted service to town and county, the Little Nonprofit That Could deserves a chance to save the cultural soul of Herrontown Woods.

With so many houses falling all around us, and even the livability of our planet being steadily sacrificed with each passing day, it’s time to support an organization that is hard-wired to restore, protect and utilize an irreplaceable cultural legacy.


Stephen K. Hiltner, President (Friends of Herrontown Woods), Ahmed Azmy (the Rotary Club of Princeton), Victoria Floor, Jon Johnson, Sally Tazelaar, Inge Regan, Karla Cook, Zoe Brooks, Alastair Binnie, Wendy Kaczerski, Roger Shatzkin, James Manganero, Laura Strong, Robert Wade Speir, Amy Flynn, Philip Poniz, Joanna Poniz, Daniel Harris, Heidi Fichtenbaum, Lee Varian, Janet Heroux, Margaret Griffin, Liz Fillo, Chris Coucill, John Abrams, Irene Amarel, Dave Miller, Richard Blofson, Mimi Schwartz, Lewis Gantwerk, Anna Rosa Kohn, Cecelia Hodges, Rhona Porter, Ruth Schulman, Cynthia Sage, Vanda Patel, Padmaja Yalamanchili, Georg Huellstrunk, Cornelia Huellstrunk, Ann King-Musza, Sarah Spitzer, Trevor Little, Janet Little, Joe Budelis, Tineke Thio, Julia Eizenkop, Henry S. Horn, Maryella Hannum, Jill Warrington, Phil Tennant, Julie Tennant, Eric Schreiber, William Sachs, Clifford Zink, Teresa Riordan, Brownlee McKee, Vera Candiani, Peter Thompson, Suzanne Thompson, Syth DeVoe, Linda Arntzenius, Christopher Skinner, Kimberly Kracman,Andrea Odezynska, Peter Ihnat, Raisa Ihnat, Severin Ihnat, Larysa Kilpatrick, Mira Kyzyk, Emily Reeves, Callie Hancock, Nadia Azmy, Lisa Boulanger, Dorothea von Moltke, Pamela Machold, Roland Machold, Mary Clurman, Ed Simon, Diana Griebell, Peter Madison, Lorraine Skidmore, Bill Wolfe, Dorothy Mullen, Alan Goodheart, Gail Ullman, Sophie Glovier, Anne Reeves


  1. “…..even the livability of our planet being steadily sacrificed with each passing day…….”. Aren’t we being a little dramatic? It’s a nice effort to want to restore this historical site, but let’s not devolve into hyperbole.

    1. The Veblen buildings at Herrontown Woods have been a sort of Rorschach test, dividing humanity into those who see only flaw and those who see inner worth and promise. Through the long journey to develop support for saving the Veblen House, seeing worth where many shrugged, it’s been heartening to remember that even something as precious as a livable planet can be viewed as disposable.

  2. If the county really is choked for cash, handing over the buildings to the volunteers makes the most sense, as volunteer sweat is always going to be less expensive than a government-managed demolition project.

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