Hundred Years Ago
1914: A Glimpse of the Coe Family One Hundred Years Ago
By Frank J. Smith
Mr. and Mrs. William R. Coe had purchased Planting Fields in December 1913 and so the following year, exactly one hundred years ago, they were able to embark on ambitious improvements to the property that they had rented since 1911 and for which they undoubtedly had all sorts of plans in mind. In 1914 Mr. Coe had been President and C.E.O. of the marine insurance firm, Johnson & Higgins, since 1910, and was a director of the Virginian Railway, which had been founded in 1907 by his father-in-law, H.H. Rogers, and from which his wife Mai was receiving a considerable income. Owning a fine property on Long Island’s North Shore was part and parcel of a particular way of life for a family with social ambitions - the equivalent of a box at the opera or building an art collection, or all of the above. The convention of a country house as an escape from the noise and bustle of city life has existed since antiquity and the magnificence of Planting Fields, and its surviving completeness, is one of the last great examples of its type. The considerable scale of Planting Fields, as it was developed by the Coes in the ten years after they purchased the property, is one of the very last examples of a great Beaux Arts estate in America. Both the rolling landscape and the revival style of the house are in the English manner, and they were designed for a man - Mr. Coe - who was born in England and came to America as a teenager, it was here he made his fortune. The English, because of their vast and expanding wealth between about 1600 and 1900, came to build more fine country estates than anywhere else in Europe, and these places were recognized signs of high social standing. They became a model for grand country places in the United States. English estates usually grew in their magnificence over several generations of ownership, but here in the United States, a hundred years ago, during extraordinarily fast industrial and economic growth, huge numbers of country estates were built and embellished in one single generation, with all the bells and whistles of places that had once taken a hundred years or more in Europe. The economic cost of World War I and its aftermath caused the failure and destruction of many English country houses, but in America in 1914, three years before entering the war, the continuing prosperity, at least for many like the Coe family, permitted the building of estates. It was the great crash of 1929 that caused the end of estate building on Long Island, and by that time Planting Fields was a prime example of the last great flowering of country estate building.
To begin their embellishment of the property, the Coes hired the firm of architects, Guy Lowell and A. Roland Sargent. Guy Lowell (1870-1927) came from a distinguished Boston family, and graduated from Harvard and M.I.T. He had also studied at the École des Beaux Arts, the famous art school in Paris. Lowell’s partner and brother-in-law, A. Robeson Sargent (1882-1918) was a fellow Harvard graduate, where his father was a professor of arboriculture and first director of the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent’s father was a friend of Mai Coe’s father, H.H. Rogers, which is almost certainly how he and Lowell came to work for the Coes.
The most significant project for 1914 was the building of the Main Greenhouse and by no means was this a modest greenhouse of its time, even before the Hibiscus house, the largest of the spaces that was added in 1929. Designed and supervised by Lowell and Sargent, construction commenced under the building firm, Lord and Burnham, well known for building the best greenhouses in the Northeast. The foundation and glass frame for the structure was $20,275 (about $474,265 today) and there were also a few unforeseen expenses that the Coe’s incurred for this project adding $20,180 to the initial cost (about $472,040 today). By summer construction was continuing rapidly and by November Mr. Coe wrote to his son, Robert, who was away at school, that “the greenhouses are finished and are stocked.” A multitude of equipment, heating systems, plumbing and supplies were required to get the greenhouse started. The Kohler Brothers were used to install the plumbing, and while on the property, also installed several fire hydrants. In the finished greenhouse flowers were grown and sent to Mrs. Coe daily for their New York City home, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, giving the greenhouse a practical use as well. Sargent also aided Mr. Coe in the selection of gardeners, and made several recommendations for him including a gardener who worked on the estate of J. P. Morgan. Coe mandated that at least one gardener live in the greenhouse “so that matters of fires, etc., would be continually under his supervision.” He was an insurance executive after all!
Other tasks carried out in 1914 included the planting of the parkland with many tree seedlings, purchased from the New York Conservation Commission, which had been founded in 1902 to promote the reforestation of areas in New York State that had been decimated by logging. Today the Conservation Commission is part of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (they give out tree seedlings on Arbor Day each year at Planting Fields). The trees ordered and planted were cedars, scotch and red pine, and oak. Other shrubs and trees came from the former Fairhaven, Massachusetts estate of H.H. Rogers, who died in 1909 (His country house was to be torn down in 1915). These plantings were the cause of some confusion because Mr. and Mrs. Coe had selected several trees without realizing H.H. Rogers Jr., Mai’s brother, who had first pick, had not already made his selections, eventually the problem was resolved. The lawns around the big house were also renovated, since they were very thin and full of weeds. Sargent proposed working in humus to 9.5 acres of lawn. Minor improvements included the replacement of the gutters on the existing main house that had been built in 1906 by Grosvenor Atterbury for James Byrne and his wife. In 1914 the Coes also paid New York Telephone to bury the unsightly overhead telephones wires underground at a cost of $285 (about $6,200 today). Improvements to the farm included buying six new work horses. While the family wanted to improve and expand many aspects of the estate, they also wanted to buy some of the furniture owned by the Byrnes from whom they had bought the property; three payments totaling $4,600 (about $101,000 today) were paid for the furniture.
Along with Planting Fields the Coe family also owned their residence at 6 East 83rd St. in Manhattan, and their ranch at Irma Lake, WY. During 1914, the ranch was expanded to 100,000 acres that accommodated 10,000 cattle. When in Wyoming they did not want to be removed from the events happening in New York, and had copies of the New York Herald and the Sun forwarded to the ranch.
The projects at Planting Fields must have been exciting to watch unfold, especially for children. The two oldest of their four children, William Rogers Coe, age 13, and Robert Douglas Coe, age 12, were enrolled at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. The letters William and Robert sent home and Mr. Coe’s replies provide an intimate glimpse into the Coe’s family life, as well as the rigors of boarding school life during this time. The youngest children, Henry and Natalie, age 7 and 4 respectively, remained with the family under the care of a governess. St. Paul’s School was founded in 1856 as an Episcopalian boarding school for boys which was modeled on the English public school tradition. Graduates of St. Paul’s include three presidential candidates, six members of congress, and 13 ambassadors. Eventually Robert D. Coe was one of these ambassadors, serving as American ambassador to Denmark during the Eisenhower administration. William, the oldest son, was attending the school as early as 1912, and Robert’s first year was the fall of 1914. A typical school day at St. Paul’s according to Robert Coe’s letter of September 1914, consisted of the following; the students would wake at 7:00am, eat breakfast at 7:30am, attend chapel at 8:15am, the first session of classes was from 8:45am to 12:45pm. The students had a break between 1:00pm and 4:40pm where they ate lunch and had some free time. Classes resumed at 4:40pm and lasted until 6:15pm. Supper was served at 6:30pm, and from 7:10pm to 8:10pm was time to study. Lights out was at 9:00pm sharp each night. Packages sent to the children were monitored by the faculty, and in November of 1914 Robert had to write his father to tell him that the sending of cake was not allowed.
The class schedule at St. Paul’s included many diverse subjects, several of which would seem unusual in a high school classroom today. During 1914 William took classes in Latin, Greek, French, Algebra, English, History, Sacred Studies, Arithmetic, and Manual Arts. Robert’s course load was much the same, but substituted Sacred Studies for Mythology. Their marks were a frequent point of conversation in the letters between Mr. Coe and his sons. William’s performance was about average to somewhat below average, and Robert usually excelled and hovered around second and third highest in his class. Mr. Coe motivated his children to do their best at school with a mixture of rewards, encouragement, and admonishment. In one harsh letter Mr. Coe wrote that if William did not improve his performance, “You will be the laughing stock of the school and of everyone who knows you”. Mr. Coe and Mrs. Coe visited St. Paul’s once during the year, and stayed at the Alumni House.
When not studying or attending class, William and Robert were involved in several extra -curricular activities. Both boys played football, and Mai wanted to make sure their uniforms were warm enough. The football games at St. Paul’s were divided into three teams called “clubs.” William and Robert played on the “Isthmian”, which they considered the best team. The other teams were “Old Hundred” and “Delphian.” William played left guard and Robert was right tackle. Robert spent the better part of half a page outlining the “trick play” the team intended to use in their upcoming game. Robert ran track, William was a member of the choir, and both enjoyed ice skating.
Mr. Coe considered writing home frequently to be essential and even considered letter writing a part of their education. Robert was always more diligent in writing home, and Mr. Coe sometimes asked Robert to tell his older brother to keep in more frequent contact. When not discussing school work both the boys and Mr. Coe loved to discuss the fortunes of the race horses their father owned. The boys took considerable interest in their success and even borrowed newspapers from classmates to try to follow the races. Mr. Coe would also often include in his letters how the horses were doing. The horses “Election Bet”, “Piping Hot”, and “Molly Gray” did well, while the horse “Hafiz” turned out to be a disappointment and was sold at the end of the year. Other topics of interest included the ranch in Wyoming, the family dogs, and Mr. Coe’s hunting and fishing trips.
Mr. Coe and his wife kept busy socially and belonged to a myriad of different social and sporting clubs. One club Mr. Coe belonged to in 1914 was India House. This club, which still exists, was established the same year and the membership was predominately of gentlemen involved in the marine business. The club was conveniently located close to the office of Johnson & Higgins, and must have served as a place for Mr. Coe to entertain and network while he was President and CEO of Johnson & Higgins. When not socializing at a club, the Coes also enjoyed theater. The ledger for 1914 reveals that the family spent $194 on theater tickets that year (about $4,200 today). They also loved travel, but their trips abroad were curtailed by World War I. They visited France in April of 1914, but that was their last trip abroad until the end of hostilities in 1918. They supported a wide variety of causes through charity. The Coes helped support the community in Oyster Bay, and donated to the Oyster Bay Fire Department, Oyster Bay Library and hospitals. The Coes did not fail to recognize the destruction World War I was inflicting on the people of Europe and gave $600.00 (about $13,000 today) to aid the people of Belgium who suffered invasion by the German Army.