Life at Planting Fields a Hundred Years Ago

1916 From the Archives

Life with the Coe Family at Planting Fields and Beyond

by Henry b. Joyce

and Andrea Crivello

 

At the end of March 1916, William R. Coe and his wife Mai arrived back at Planting Fields after six weeks of winter travel that had taken them to Jamaica, the Panama Canal, and Palm Beach, Florida. The two sailed in February, on the Almaranti from New York City for Kingston, Jamaica. From there they left for Panama and then on to Cuba. While traveling, Mr. and Mrs. Coe stayed at fine hotels. In Havana, they were booked at the Hotel Sevilla, which at the time was the best hotel in the city, now in its 108th year of operation. Its handsome façade, fine rooms, and central location made it one of the most preferred places to stay. The last part of their month and a half-long trip was spent in Palm Beach, where the Coes stayed at Henry Flagler’s famous and vast Royal Poinciana Hotel, a Gilded Age extravaganza that was once the largest wooden structure in the world, with 1,700 employees and accommodations for 2,000 guests. The wealthy could arrive at the hotel’s entrance in their private railway cars. It closed down in 1934 and was razed the following year. Eventually, the Coes owned a Palm Beach house on the ocean. In 1916, even while traveling, Mr. Coe expected his son Robert, now 14, to write to his secretary, Mr. Mc Vickar, on how he and William were doing at St. Paul’s boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. The two youngest children, Henry, 13 and Natalie, 6 were with their nurses, Miss Slade, and Miss Cornwall and went to Atlantic City for two weeks in March.

 

During 1916 the Italian Garden, a fashionable feature of grand country houses of the time, was built at Planting Fields; today it is still one of the best parts of the Coe’s ambitious designs for the park. The Tea House, with its gorgeous murals with flowers and nymphs, had been finished the year before and looked out on a tennis court (built for the previous owners). The site was hollowed out to sink the new garden about 10 feet below the surrounding landscape. The rectilinear shaped garden pool became a space in the style of “giardino segreto” of Renaissance gardens in Italy, a “secret”, or more correctly a “secluded” garden; a place where there might be more privacy than in the more open parkland. Sunken gardens get some protection from cold winds, and plants will often flower earlier in the spring in such a setting. The architects, Guy Lowell, and A. Robson Sargent, who had planned the Tea House and Main Greenhouse, were initially in charge of the Italian Garden; one of their plans, dated 1916, is illustrated on page 28. The drawing shows the large pool, with sculpture and water lilies along with lawns and borders for flowers, much as it survives today. A letter from Sargent to Mr. Coe reveals that the superintendent, Joseph Robinson, was supervising sixteen-day laborers, each paid $2.25 per day to excavate 16,000 square yards of earth.

 

One of the main reasons for the prevalence of Italian gardens on large American estates a hundred years ago was the work of the famous American novelist Edith Wharton, who in 1903 authored a series of widely-read articles in The Century Magazine about the history of formal gardens in Italy. The articles were later published as a book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, which was tremendously influential in the garden design world. Wharton built her garden, with an Italian style pergola at her country house “The Mount” in Lennox, Massachusetts. Through the 1920s, Italian gardens on grand estates were built all across the country, from Vermont to Florida, in the Mid-West, and on the West Coast. There were several on Long Island, but most are lost, which makes Planting Fields (restored and reopened in 2010) particularly important. Gardens are often an arena for the display of prosperity; large parks like Planting Fields were intended to resemble old European “family seats” with their aura of great age through generations of ownership. This sensibility was what wealthy owners wanted to recreate in their new estates. The Coes visited England regularly and were quite familiar with fine old houses and gardens. They were also frequent readers of Country Life magazine which promoted the country house ideal, of which Planting Fields is a prime and rare surviving example.

 

The Coe family was based in New York City, which a hundred years ago, was the financial, social, artistic and intellectual center of American life, more so than today. On weekends, away from their busy lives in the city, they entertained friends at Coe Hall and the Italian Garden, specifically located close to the house was where Mrs. Coe could serve tea to her guests. The garden was designed to be used as an outside room with everyone wearing their finest tea clothes and enjoying the magnificent displays of flowers, with roses in June being a particular highlight. Mrs. Coe, beautifully dressed, posed for her photo near the garden gates (photo right). Wealthy women who were interested in gardening—and it was a fashionable female pursuit – would visit and be entertained in each other’s gardens. It was these activities that partly prompted the creation of clubs, which led to the founding, in 1913, of The Garden Club of America. By 1938, there were over 2,000 garden clubs in the U.S. Many important garden architects and writers were women, including Beatrice Ferrand, who built gardens on Long Island, and was Edith Wharton’s niece. She did not work at Planting Fields, instead, in the 1920s the Coes hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to design and oversee the landscape here, including modifications to the Italian Garden, for which they designed a planting plan in 1920.

 

Mr. Coe’s passion for gardening led him to compete in many flower shows where he exhibited specimens grown in his greenhouse. On November 10th, 1916 the New York Herald reported that W.R. Coe won “nearly half the prizes” having won twenty blue ribbons at the Oyster Bay Chrysanthemum Show. The second highest winner only had seven blue ribbons. Upset came the very next day when it was discovered that thieves broke in and stole winning blooms. W.R. Coe’s, E.F. Whitney’s, and J. Stuart Blackton’s were among those whose exhibits were stolen.

 

Mr. Coe was at Planting Fields in mid-June to admire the several thousand new rhododendrons that were coming into flower. Other improvements to the landscape at Planting Fields included the purchase of 5,000 red pines, and 2,000 oak seedlings, with several hundred dollars additionally, spent on peach trees, grape vines, Magnolias and maple trees. He kept a close watch on the improvements to his other properties. The Irma Lake Lodge running expenses were $9,803, expenses of their New York City residence were $812, and the Oyster Bay expenses were $64,135 for a combined total of $74,751 or $1,661,146 in today’s dollars.

 

In early spring in 1916 Mr. Coe became ill. Correspondence between him and Robert indicates that he was sick for three months. He wrote that his eczema was acting up and that he was going for electrical treatments for what doctors thought was a nervous system relapse. His illness upset plans to visit the boys at school, and he hoped to recover so that the family could spend the summer as they usually did in the mountains of Wyoming. Mr. Coe’s letters reveal his great concern for his children, as they had their own health scares at St. Paul’s school; in fact, two of Robert’s classmates had died from Mastoiditis and a third was now ill with the same condition. In 1916, there was a series of outbreaks that, due to modern medicine, are no longer life threatening. Over the course of that year, there was an epidemic of Mumps, Measles, Chicken Pox, Mastoiditis, and one of the boys at St. Paul’s was sent to the hospital as the school infirmary was at full capacity. In March Robert wrote to this father “It is impossible to receive proper care”. He had been released from the infirmary, before being fully recovered from his head cold.

 

Later in the year, Robert wrote his father that he had passed the College Board examination in history while William had not. In one letter Mr. Coe wrote William “I am sorry indeed to note that in your mid-term examinations you only stood 68 out of 90, but am glad you appreciate how rottenly you did, I am spending a lot of money on your education, and I do not propose to sit by and see it wasted. Unless this improves when you are home for the Christmas holiday there will be no hockey games, theaters, or moving picture shows. You will be “grounded” at Oyster Bay, and I will write Dr. Drury to forbid hockey at school”. William did not write to his father nearly as often as Robert; however, he did make sure to send letters after improving in his studies and excelling at track stating that he completed the hundred yard dash in 11 4/5 seconds, with the world record being 9 3/5 at the time. In March four seats were purchased for “Pom Pom” at Cohan’s Broadway theater. William wrote Mr. Coe for permission to invite Jamee Jennings and her Governess, along with Robert.

 

For leisure William and Robert also traveled to Chicago to spend time with other family members, during which they stayed at a hotel with cousins Marion, Rowland, and Aunt Maude. William wrote to Mr. Coe asking for $5 pocket money stating “I am completely broke”. The boys were required to keep a log of spending on meals, taxis, and other miscellaneous expenditures. Mr. Coe admonished the boys stating “you certainly were extravagant in your spending. I think $4.85 for a magazine in Chicago was beyond all reason. The next time you go away, I will not give you so much money. I think it is about time you boys learnt the value of money”.

 

Mr. Coe had a year full of highs and lows with his race horses. Mustard won a race and lost by a nose at Belmont. His horses did not do well at Piping Rock; however, horses Hauberk and White Hackle became the stars of the year, and of the media. White Hackle had been purchased by Mr. Coe, from John E. Madden, for $25,000 or $555,555 in today’s money. Those in the racing world at the time felt that Mr. Coe paid too much for a horse that would not live up to his buying price. Mr. Coe first ran his horse at Saratoga, and at three years old White Hackle raced in several big stakes. Newspaper articles began to report impressive winnings. A jolt came in June of 1916 when White Hackle died in his stall from Pneumonia. The horse had been ailing for a few days having contracted a cough that had been prevalent at Belmont for several weeks. The illness developed into congestion of the lungs, which caused the sudden death. White Hackle had just won a six-furlong race at Belmont Park in the beginning of June and was valued at $20,000.

 

The 1916 ledgers and correspondence in the archives indicate that the superintendent’s house was being built, along with continued work on the farm buildings. In April, barn buildings that were being worked on near the White Cottage burnt down, and Mr. Coe expressed he was glad the cottage itself did not catch fire. The erection of the stables was taken on by Elliot & Brown Company and while in the midst of the work, Mr. Coe paid an extra $12,668 to change to fireproof construction along with $7,972 to change from shingle to slate. All of these changes cost $20,640 or about $458,666 in today’s dollars. The work at Planting Fields was part of the overall plan which took many years, but which eventually fulfilled the Coe’s ambition to make the estate the great showplace it is today.

 

In other business endeavors, Mr. Coe was elected Chairman of the Virginian Railway and a member of the board of the Scandinavian Trust Company newly formed that year, and one of the seven chosen as directors. The company became one of the largest institutions organized to meet the increased financial responsibilities of New York City, and which developed as a result of World War I.

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