2013 is the 100th anniversary of the Coe’s purchase of Planting Fields

By Gwendolyn L. Smith, Frank Smith, and Cequyna Moore

In the winter 2012 Evergreen, we brought you the first installment of “One Hundred Years Ago.” Now we happily present the second in a series that draws from account ledgers and photographic resources in our archives. Though an incomplete picture of daily life, nonetheless, it is a tantalizing glance into the Coes’ private world. The archives have been maintained by Planting Fields Foundation since the 1970s and are continually added to.

The Coe family was living in a time of exciting political and cultural change that shaped early 20th century America and New
York City.  It is possible to imagine 1913 by looking at some of the highlights of the year and then to follow Coe family activities during this time.

President Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912 and sworn into office March of 1913.  The Federal Reserve Act was passed in December of 1913, which served to regulate the nation’s banks, credit, and money supply, and is still used as a framework in government today.  Locally in New York, feats of industry abounded with the completion and opening of the Beaux-Arts style Grand Central Terminal. At midnight on February 2, 1913, the doors opened to 150,000 people who visited that first day.  At a cost of $80 million, it served as a statement that there was a commitment to offer train service to passengers throughout New York; subsequently many railway stations were modeled after it.  It also served as a statement of New York’s power as a grand and thriving metropolis.  Grand Central Terminal had a new electric signal system, making it the only train station to have such an elaborate mechanism in the United States, as well as the longest amount of railroad electrification in the nation.  Technology and the machine made it possible for Henry Ford to start his assembly line, which led to many of the characteristics of the modern workday that we know.

New York’s grand skylines and architecture emerged further with the completion of the Gothic style Woolworth building, opened in 1913.  Designed by Cass Gilbert, it was a towering 792 feet tall, and became the tallest building in America, often called the “Cathedral of Commerce.”  F.W. Woolworth wanted his building to be taller than both the Singer Sewing Machine building and the Metropolitan Life building.  They were 612 feet and 692 feet, respectively.  There would be a series of skyscrapers, which would be built during this period and into the ‘20s, many incorporating Art Deco elements.  Walker & Gilette, who built Coe Hall, went on to design the Fuller building in 1929 on E. 57th Street.  It represents an architectural expression of the industrial energy and creative dynamism of the first three decades of the 20th century.

The art world was significantly transformed in 1913 by the Lexington Avenue Armory Show, which featured artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.  The latter, whose “Nude Descending a Staircase” is now considered canonical for art history texts, was disliked by many at its debut.  Some American artists like Everett Shinn (who created oil paintings for the Tea House in 1915 and Mai Coe’s bathroom in 1921) were invited but declined to participate.

Back home at Planting Fields, the Coe family ledgers lend little commentary on such outside events, but instead, offer an intimate glimpse at the daily events and expenditures that revolved around the Coes’ lives.  The days and evenings were filled with work for Mr. Coe, and the social conventions of parties at the Coe’s 6 East 83rd Street residence, dinners and events at their clubs, trips to their Irma Lake ranch near Cody, Wyoming, as well as shopping for clothing, household items, and antiques.

It was December 1913 when Mr. and Mrs. Coe purchased Planting Fields, having previously rented it since 1910.  Today’s familiar features like the greenhouses and gardens did not exist yet.  One of the main expenses recorded for Planting Fields was the servants, during the year, $688.22 (about $15,000 today) was spent by Mr. Coe to cover some of the servants’ wages.

In 1913, the New York Tribune reported a party in October that honored the Prince of Monaco, listing Mr. Coe as one of the guests.  Many prominent New York residents, including Andrew Carnegie, attended this occasion.  In February 1913, James Reese Europe, an African American orchestra leader, performed at the Coes’ Upper East Side home. Europe was paid $50 for the event (about $1,000 today).  Two weeks later, Europe performed at Carnegie Hall for a benefit.  In 1913, Reese also played for the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and the Stuyvesant Fishes. The Coes enjoyed music, and Mai Coe played a piano that she often traveled with, or would ask for a piano to be provided for her when staying in hotels.  A Steinway was purchased in 1913, which is probably the piano still at Planting Fields today.  The piano was later used by Natalie Coe.  Mai Coe became interested in the works of composer Emerson Whithorne, and he eventually dedicated one of his compositions, a piano suite, to Mai entitled, “New York Days and Nights.”

Mr. Coe belonged to a number of social clubs in 1913, totaling about two dozen at least.  Piping Rock in Locust Valley (New York), the Marion Cricket (Pennsylvania), the Brooklyn Riding and Driving (New York), and the Rumson Club (New Jersey) were all visited by the Coes.  Dues for the clubs varied; the New York Yacht Club charged $75 in annual dues (about $1650 today), and the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Club charged $200 (about $4,400 today).

Horses and racing were a passion for Mr. Coe. “Piping Hot” and “Election Bet” were purchased in 1913 for $1500 (about $33,000 today), with payments made in January and May.  Mr. Coe had his horses compete in the June Subscription Final at the Piping Rock Club.  This was the first year Mr. Coe entered the event, and his two new horses were about to be put to the test.  The New York Times reported he won $10,000 (about $250,000 today) at the event.  “Piping Hot” went on to win the Piping Rock Subscription at Belmont Park that October.  Today, the silver trophy from that win is on display in the Entrance Hall of Coe Hall.

The Coes traveled for both work and leisure in 1913.  As President of Johnson and Higgins, the
insurance company, Mr. Coe was expected to attend to work across the country.  In February, they headed to Chicago on
company business.  The cost of the train ticket was $117 (or about $2,000 today).  In Chicago, they stayed at the Drake Hotel and spent $127 (about $3,000 today).  Sometimes, while Mr. Coe was away on business, Mrs. Coe enjoyed spending time in Atlantic City.  She vacationed there at the Brighton Hotel during November 1913.  Over $260 (about $5,800 today) was spent on this seaside respite.  During these years, Mrs. Coe made several visits to Atlantic City, which was a popular resort in the early part of the 20th century.  It was advertised as a healthful ocean retreat for those living in Philadelphia, New York, and neighboring cities, and with a railroad line leading visitors to its attractions, it was a surefire success.

The family’s main travel destination was their ranch, Irma Lake, near Cody, Wyoming.  They would usually depart for Wyoming in July just as the summer in New York heated up.  Mrs. Coe was very active in furnishing their home at their ranch.  Retailers such as Marshall Field and J.P. McHugh provided sofas, chintz chairs, and pillows.  Fitting for a home in the west, Mrs. Coe purchased a buffalo head from Abercrombie and Fitch for $154 (about $4,000 today).  Mr. Coe started an animal trophy collection at the ranch, and paid a taxidermist $65 (about $1,500 today) to mount an elk’s head, which can now be seen in Coe Hall.  By the end of 1913, Mrs. Coe had spent about $8,000 (about $180,000 today) on furnishings and decorations for their lodge.

When not travelling or socializing, the Coes enjoyed collecting art and antiques, and spent over $10,000 on these purchases in 1913.  At M.C.D. Borden Estate Auction, Mr. Coe bought terra cotta figures of Aphrodite and Eros for $525 (about $12,000 today), and a lion rug valued at $1,000 (about $22,000 today).  On the whole, however, Mr. Coe’s interest was primarily in Western art, which recorded the vast landscapes of Wyoming.

In 1913, William, the eldest son, was age 12 when he received a bicycle from Spalding Brothers at a cost of $29.50 (about $650 today).  William and Robert Coe attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, where tuition was $1,192.95 ($26,000 in today’s currency).  In 1913, brother Henry was six and sister Natalie Mai was three.  Natalie was lavished with over $1,300 (about $30,000 today) worth of clothing and shoes.  The Coes often shopped at B. Altman, Best & Company, and Saks & Company, all of whom provided the best clothes of the era.  Mai purchased perfume and two kimonos from Gimbels in October 1913.  Robert and Henry were educated at home by Kate Bovee and took art lessons with her sister Eleanor Bovee.  Robert would develop his talent for art and pursued oil painting and photography later in life to balance the demands of his career as a diplomat.



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