Mercer County will transfer ownership of the 142-acre Herrontown Woods Arboretum in Princeton to the municipality, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes announced yesterday.
The wooded park contains numerous hiking trails as well as the Veblen House, cottage and associated structures formerly owned by the renowned mathematician Oswald Veblen and his wife, Elizabeth, who deeded their land to Mercer County in 1957 and 1974. The County acquired additional acreage in the 1960s to bring the property to its current 142 acres.
“Princeton has been responsible for the management of the Herrontown Woods grounds since 2011, and this property transfer would give the town full autonomy there,” Hughes said, noting that the proposed agreement is subject to approval by the Princeton Council, the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the New Jersey Green Acres Program.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said the municipality is currently in discussions with the Friends of Herrontown Woods to develop a separate agreement for the restoration of the Veblen House.
“We’ve seen a surge in community interest in preserving the property, and are hopeful that the municipality and non-profit can agree upon a plan,” Lempert said. “Any restoration would be funded without local taxpayer dollars.”
The proposed agreement calls for Mercer County to complete confirmatory groundwater sampling and soil remediation prior to closing, and to pay the municipality $85,000 for the potential demolition of the structures located on the property. The Mercer County Park Commission, which has had responsibility for the structures, recently sought bids to demolish them. Princeton is now seeking funds in case the demolition of any buildings on the site is necessary.
Princeton resident Steve Hiltner, who has been working to save the Veblen House for the last 10 years and has recruited volunteers and supporters while also raising money for the preservation of the house, said members of his non-profit group, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, are thrilled to begin realizing their vision for the buildings after facing years of opposition and plans to demolish the Veblen House, farm cottage, barn and corncrib at Herrontown Woods.
“Princeton gave our group permission to restore the trails and habitats over the past four years, and we have long wanted to apply that restorative energy to the buildings as well,” Hiltner said. “The Veblens loved nature, and loved bringing people together. It’s fitting that they left behind a house and cottage that can serve as a gathering place along the magnificent corridor of preserved open space in eastern Princeton. We’re thankful to all those in the community who expressed their support, and to the mayor and town council for giving this initiative the chance it deserves. We look forward to working with the town to make Herrontown Woods and its cultural legacy a great asset for Princeton.”
Herrontown Woods became Princeton’s first nature preserve in 1957. Hiltner said it is full of natural and cultural history, and the buildings are a vital part of that history. The Veblen House was built by a patrician family from Manhattan in the 1930s, the Whiton-Stuarts. The cottage, more frequently seen because it’s located along the main trail at Herrontown Woods, was built by subsistence farmers in 1875. Together, they offer a portrait that stretches across economic classes and centuries, Hiltner said.