He’s Bringing a Secret Garden in Princeton Back to Life

Steve Hiltner, founder of Friends of Herrontown Woods, is working with local volunteers to lovingly restore a lost nature preserve.

Steve Hiltner
Steve Hiltner, a local musician and writer, stumbled upon this hidden garden in Princeton. Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser

Steve Hiltner was hiking through Princeton’s Herrontown Woods in 2007 when he came across an abandoned house and cottage. “It was like being in the wilderness, on the frontier,” says Hiltner, who is a jazz musician, writer, actor and botanist from Princeton. The house was open, and Hiltner ventured inside. A few boxes of paperbacks sat on the living room floor—a sign, he thought, that someone had found shelter there in the not-too-distant past.

“I said, ‘Wow, what’s this?’” he remembers. “So that’s when I took steps to work to fix it up.”

That hike sparked a decade-long effort to restore not just the house, but the entire 150-acre nature preserve in northeast Princeton on which it sits. The garden is open to the public; the house is under renovation.

Hiltner’s nonprofit group, Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), has removed downed trees, invasive shrubs, and poison ivy to turn barely passable paths into some of the region’s best easy hiking trails. Volunteers created a “botanical art garden,” called the Barden, at the entrance, while the house and nearby cottage are being prepared for renovations as meeting, performance, and educational-programming spaces.

The house, a prefab that was moved there from Morristown in 1930, played a noteworthy role in Princeton history: It became the home of mathematician Oswald Veblen, one of the first faculty members at the Institute for Advanced Study, and his wife, Elizabeth. Albert Einstein used to join the mathematician for walks in the woods and tea in the 1875 cottage, which Veblen used as a study. The Veblens donated the property to Mercer County; today, it is owned by the municipality of Princeton, but the volunteers of FOHW have been transforming it.

Work began in 2013, led by Hiltner and artists Kurt and Sally Tazelaar of Princeton, who spent much of that hot summer clearing trees and plants from trails, a massive undertaking. Builders digging out basements nearby contributed stepping stones.

It’s no surprise that the original volunteers came from the arts, Hiltner says: “You learn to make something out of something everyone else doesn’t pay much attention to. It was very much a vision, seeing beyond what’s there, seeing what it could be.”

The project grew organically from there. As a bar mitzvah service project, a local boy helped clear a looped trail in the woods. Sculptures—donated or created from repurposed materials—appeared in the Barden. The pandemic brought more volunteers.

Last year, the woods hosted an Earth Day event, outdoor readings of poetry and nature writing, a concert of Celtic music, and yoga classes. Lawn chairs dot the house’s garden.

Hiltner believes the restoration of the woods and house is in the tradition of Veblen himself.

For more information, visit herrontownwoods.org.

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