Hundred Years Ago
From the archives; A glimpse of the Coe family in 1915
By Andrea Crivello, Curatorial Assistant
Mrs. Coe’s income was always more than her husband’s. In 1915 the family ledgers (now in the Foundation’s archives) show that Mai Coe’s income for the year was $426,781.60, just under $10 million in today’s dollars. She inherited her investments from her father, Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909) who was a Standard Oil partner and owned interests in many industries, including his immensely profitable Virginian Railway, as well as copper and steel. In 1915 Mr. Coe’s income, from marine insurance and other sources, amounted to $134,190.41, which in today’s dollars is about $3 million.
For the transformation of Planting Fields (which the Coes had jointly owned for two years) into a magnificent English landscape garden, they hired the prominent Harvard-trained architect and landscape architect, Guy Lowell and his partner, landscape architect, Andrew S. Sargent. Together they designed several Long Island gardens, including those of J. Pierpont Morgan and Clarence Mackay. Sargent was the son of Charles Sprague Sargent who was an internationally known authority on agriculture and plant life. The elder Sargent was a friend of H.H. Rogers and advised on Rogers’ Fairhaven, Massachusetts estate. In 1915, six years after Rogers’ death, Mai Coe had two huge copper beaches from her father’s gardens moved to Planting Fields. Letters in the archives reveal that Lowell and the younger Sargent were in charge of the move. The trees each weighed about 28 tons, with root balls between 20 and 30 feet across. They were barged across Long Island Sound, to Oyster Bay, in January, where they were moored and surrounded by ice for a month while local roads were widened. The Coes spent $4,000 or about $95,000 in today’s money, on lawyers’ fees to convince Nassau Light & Power Company to take down their wires to allow the trees to pass. The Fairhaven Star newspaper reported that Mr. Coe’s pocketbook was the “open sesame that overcame all objections”. The journey from Oyster Bay to Planting Fields took about two weeks and involved steam rollers pushing the loads while teams of horses pulled. However, only one of the Fairhaven trees lived a long life, until 2006. It was also at this time, one hundred years ago, that beach trees were planted along the drive from the park entrance on Planting Fields Road, to the main house, which had been built by Grosvenor Atterbury in 1906. To make way for many new plantings throughout the estate, old trees were removed – over 800 of them in 1915, and their stumps were blown out of the ground using dynamite purchased from E.I. Dupont De Nemours Powder Co.
The Coes purchased a wide variety of plants and trees, including a cutting from the famous two hundred year old grape vine from a greenhouse at Hampton Court Palace. The English had begun cultivating oranges and grapes under glass in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII, father of the future Queen Elizabeth, owned Hampton Court. Mr. Coe, who was British by birth, eventually built Coe Hall in the Elizabethan style, very likely to honor his country of origin. The mansion includes brick chimneys like those at Hampton Court. Mr. Coe’s vision for Planting Fields is a tribute to his heritage; therefore, to have a cutting from the legendary palace vine, which still grows there today, is in keeping with his romantic plans for the estate. Unfortunately, there is no grape vine from that cutting here in the park today.
In April Mr. and Mrs. Coe were in California where they purchased plant material including kumquats and lemons from Armstrong Nurseries in Ontario. The nursery had been founded in 1889 and still flourishes today as the Armstrong Garden Centers. At Planting Fields these purchases would have been housed in Lowell and Sargent’s main greenhouse that had begun to be built in 1914. From Luther Burbank Co. in Santa Rosa (also continuing in business today), the Coes bought roses and cacti. Their largest purchase of plants in 1915 was a huge group of 2,000 rhododendrons from John Waterer Sons & Crisp Nursery in England who, because of World War I, had large unsold stocks and offered Mr. Coe very reasonable prices. Rhododendrons were widely cultivated and hybridized in England where they were used in many types of gardens, particularly, in the outer edges of large country estates, where informal meandering pathways and drives might be lined with rhododendrons that could grow to be twenty or thirty feet in height. This manner of grand showy shrubs to see while walking, driving, or riding by also became prevalent in American landscape gardens, of which Planting Fields is a very fine example. Over a forty year period Mr. Coe planted thousands of rhododendrons. In recent years many of his plantings have been renewed, once again making these shrubs one of the glories of the park.
In 1915 plans for a new Italian Garden began to take shape. It was centered on a tea house that originally looked out onto a tennis court. For Mrs. Coe this small one-room building was decorated inside with murals by the New York City-based artist Everett Shinn. He signed his Fragonard-inspired west wall lunette, and dated it “1915”. Elsie de Wolfe was the overall designer of the room. She had known Shinn for about fifteen years before the tea house was decorated and hired him to paint several murals for other clients in and around the city. In our archives there is a small group of letters between Shinn and W. R. Coe that traces the progress of the project over the summer and fall. In June the artist was paid $2000 for his work (in today’s money about $47,000). His painted furniture, which is still in the room, was completed in October. From other documents it appears that the new Italian Garden, as we know it today, was not built until 1916.
The farm, at the southern end of the estate, was part of the Coes’ plan to enlarge what the Byrnes had begun when they owned the property. In 1915 a new incubator was purchased for rearing chickens, and the vegetable garden was expanded with corn, grain, and potatoes. A series of ledgers specific to farm activity indicate that from January to November approximately 17,613 eggs, 3,032 quarts of milk, 372 quarts of cream, and 294 pounds of butter were produced. A portion of this was consumed on the property, while the rest were shipped to other Coe family residences and the surplus sold. The produce included lettuce, tomatoes, string beans, and mustard cress. Mr. Coe’s private secretary was often sent fresh eggs. The architects Walker & Gilette (who later built Coe Hall) submitted plans for estate buildings, including one for the Boarding House, where men working at Planting Fields lived. Eight rooms were to be added. Changes were also proposed for the garage building and stable, with Mr. Walker’s assurance that they would produce something “which will in every way be a credit to Planting Fields”. Aside from spending time on Long Island, the Coes continued to visit and maintain their other properties - the residence they owned in Manhattan at 6 East 83rd Street, and the ranch in Wyoming. There was considerable maintenance and enhancements to each of these properties. In their New York City home, the 1915 ledgers indicate electrical repairs, painting of various rooms, and furniture purchases. They paid $1,449.25 in two installments for city real estate taxes. The Coes were in their fifth year of ownership at Irma Lake, near Cody, after purchasing the property from Buffalo Bill. According to correspondence between Mr. Coe and his son Robert, Mr. Coe had 599 cows and 599 calves, purchased in Billings, Montana, which were sent to the ranch in the spring. There were shingles purchased from Pearson Bros. and new furnishings, including arts and crafts style lamps, chairs, and three leopard skins. Money was also spent on a new Ford truck. The annual running expenses at the ranch were about $9,272.13 (in today’s money, about $215,630).
In terms of business, Mr. Coe was now in his fifth year as president of the insurance firm, Johnson & Higgins. He was a director of the Virginian Railway where in 1915, the company laid 15.76 miles of new track. A total of 742.69 miles were operational with purchases of 775 steel gondola cars, and just over 400 cars rebuilt with steel under frames. One locomotive was newly equipped with a mechanical stoker, a technological advance at the time.
Mr. Coe made time to play an active role in his children’s lives. In 1915, William was 14, Robert 13, Henry 12, and Natalie 5, respectively. Henry and Natalie remained at home under the care of a nurse and governess. In May 1915 Henry’s nurse was discharged for what Mr. Coe conveyed as “impertinence”. A new nurse was hired and Mr. Coe noted that she was doing “fairly well”.
William and Robert were away at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and their parents expected the boys to write often. Mr. Coe also paid attention to his boys’ academic performance and spending activities. Much of the correspondence from the year had to do with their grades and demerits. William asked for his father’s permission to switch from Greek to Spanish, as Greek was too difficult for him. In his response Mr. Coe ignored this request and instead focused on the fact that William was ranked 11th in a division of seventeen while Robert was 1st in his division. He austerely stated “You are at the age now where you should brace up and not remain in the disgraceful condition you are now in, with your studies, so that your younger brother beats you in everything”. Robert had his share of admonishment in May, when he received 10 demerits for laughing with a friend in front of one of his masters at school. When Robert said he felt the staff was against him, he was told by his father to not only “change his perspective, but his behavior” as well.
A letter from February listed the boys school books for that term, which included, Natural History, War of 1914, Uncle Sam’s Modern Miracles, CHUMS, and Popular Fleet. CHUMS, was a Boys Adventure Story, published weekly at one penny a copy. They told stories with historical context ranging from the Napoleonic Wars, to adventures in Africa, China, South America and India. In a letter to William, Mr. Coe asked him if his mother gave them the authority to charge their school books, and if not, how they intended to pay for them noting “You will remember that before you went to school, I cautioned you about charging things to my account without authority, and I wish you would please keep this in mind”. Both boys failed to do so at one point during the year; William purchased a Vera scope camera without asking. Mr. Coe warned him, stating, “It is easy to spend money when you have it, but sometimes it is very hard to get it. Do you realize that after you get through college and take a position you will be very lucky indeed if you receive a salary of $50 a month?” Robert purchased a Ulysses S. Grant autograph for $15, which he later explained he had charged under the assumption that it would be a birthday present from his mother. Of the events during their time in school, William wrote a letter in February asking his father to send 5lbs of candy in ½ lb boxes for the school’s Washington’s Birthday Fair, the proceeds of which went to charity. Whenever William asked for money, he made sure to mention that he had not received any demerits. Mr. Coe sent the boxes, along with $5 for William to spend at the fair, while advising him not to fill up on candy and get sick. Washington’s Birthday Fair on February 22, 1915, was a day traditionally without classes at St. Paul’s School; instead there was a hockey game played against Dartmouth, a fair to raise money for the orphans’ homes, a dance, and a performance of the play “The Second in Command.”
Mr. & Mrs. Coe made the trip to see the boys on that occasion, and again for the Yale-Harvard football game, in October. In terms of hobbies and leisure activities, William was very involved with hockey and wrote to his father in January that his team the ‘Isthmicins’ had ‘swept the boards’. Both he and Robert also enjoyed skiing and skating in winter, and swimming and rowing in summer.
Mr. Coe pursued different sports; he was a member of several clubs including the Seawanahaka Yacht Club in Oyster Bay and the Merion Cricket Club outside Philadelphia. A New York Times article from May 7th, 1915, highlighted W. R. Coe’s membership in The Hunters Fraternity of America, with a picture of Mr. Coe and his fellow members. The fraternity pledged to extend the system of refuges for game throughout the U.S. particularly in the Adirondacks, and on Long Island for waterfowl. The Brotherhood aimed to unite outdoor men, whether big game hunters or not, to represent ‘the highest standard of American manhood and citizenship’.
For the upkeep of Planting Fields, where the family enjoyed many outdoor activities, the 1915 running expenses included $21,905 for the main house, $800 in petty cash, $2,700 on the farm, $5,675 on the greenhouse, $4,796 on repairs and $44,342 in wages for a total of $80,218 at the time, in today’s dollars about $1,865,000. The hardware store, Nobman’s, which can still be found in the town of Oyster Bay today, appears often in the ledgers for supplies. In the fall of 2015, the butler/valet Henry Whyte, very much liked by the Coe children, was given a new stove and plumbing fixtures for his cottage on the property. Christmas that year, in both correspondence & gift ledgers, indicate that Mr. Coe gave $10 gold pieces to each of his outside laborers employed for 6 months or longer, and $5 gold pieces to all other men serving for a shorter time.