Veblen’s Legacy

By James Firestone

I used to think that more than anyone in the recent past, Edgar Palmer changed the town of Princeton the most. He changed it from being a one-horse town to a European style town with a central open space known today as Palmer Square. I still tip my hat when I go past his home at one Nassau Street.

But today, I just changed my mind. After a walk in Herrontown Woods to attend the 139th birthday celebration of Oswald Veblen, I realize that he had changed my town even more. Veblen, who recruited many of the original great minds at the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), made sure that the greatest part of Princeton remained open land that was not developed, an unusual thing in Central New Jersey.

Not only did he give his own residence plus 80 acres to Mercer County to eventually become a park, but he was the catalyst for securing the bulk of a vast tract of 610 acres for the IAS as a buffer from the outside world, to see that those studying there were relatively undisturbed, like those at the Princeton University Graduate College that it adjoins. It’s why IAS is where it is. He did it during the Depression for only $1,000 per acre, at the same time that Palmer built his Palmer Square.

Far later, after Veblen had died, in the 1990s other administrators at IAS entered into a lawsuit against the town over whether they could cash in on Veblen’s good investment by building 500-plus houses on that ground. But in the end, they were forced to settle with the town and give up their development rights to the land for 14 million dollars. To me, that now seems to be a drop in the bucket to preserve what Veblen had so brilliantly set aside with the intention of leaving it open.

Today, just try to imagine what it would be like if pro-development forces had had their way. For certain, we would be looking at several new schools at a huge cost to taxpayers, and an overcrowded sea of subdivisions like those which you presently find in West Windsor and Montgomery. Just think of the impact on the schools, plus getting in and out of town along Mercer Road.

That’s why I take off my hat to Oswald Veblen now, not just for bringing great minds like Einstein from war-torn Europe to Princeton, but also for his contribution of bringing open space to the attention of our community. Without his effort Princeton wouldn’t be what it is today.

That’s also why my partner Tina and I took a walk into his Herrontown Woods to join with Steve Hiltner and a group of residents who wanted to at least preserve Veblen’s home in the woods, where he used to meet with Albert Einstein in a small garage-like barn and take peripatetic walks along the trails like the ancient Greeks used to do to improve “thinking.” Veblen opened up our access to open space, while Einstein gave us access to outer space.

Hiltner’s cause is a good one for us all to join in on because: 1) it keeps our local natural history alive for our children 2) it symbolizes the value to all of us of holding open space in common and 3) it illustrates the importance to other townships of doing the same thing before it’s too late. A quiet little house focused on Nature, with a capital N, and Veblen’s role in actions that create open space would seem a good investment in our future.


  1. If the town planning board and greedy landowners have their way, 90 pristine acres just up the hill from the Veblen site are about to have 30 McMansions crammed onto equally historic ground. The lovely Lanwin tract on Herrontown Road should be saved as green space and wildlife corridor, not chopped up for profit. Thank you, Mr. Hiltner, for showing us preservation at its best.

  2. Thank you, Jim, for this eloquent testimonial, and the connections you draw between the transformative legacies of Palmer, Einstein and Veblen. I’m happy to say that the cause I began some 12 years ago, to save Veblen House and make it an asset for the community, has grown into a nonprofit with a board and volunteers who are restoring the trails, habitats and history at Herrontown Woods. Oswald and Elizabeth donated the land, a house and farm cottage, and our role is to “set the stage” for good things to happen there, whether it be a hike in the woods or a chance to gather around Veblen House and celebrate this living legacy. We have a website at, and welcome all who wish to participate in the work and fun that go into realizing the potential of this special place.

  3. The one unfortunate consequence of Palmer Square was the destruction of the original Nassau Inn. So much history tool place in that building, from John Witherspoon’s Christmas dinners to the captivity of escaped slave Jimmy Johnson in an upstairs room. It is too bad it couldn’t have been saved.

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