A Hundred Years Ago

Activity for the Coe family in 1919 was largely spent on Mai Coe’s health. Correspondence from February revealed that she was diagnosed with ‘neuritis’, an inflammatory nerve condition, along with exhaustion and intestinal disturbances. W.R. Coe was very much worried about her. The family spent the first five months of the year in constant contact. Eldest son William (18) started at Princeton University, while Robert (17) was in his last year of St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. Henry (12), who had only just started writing letters the year prior, now wrote many from Fay School in Massachusetts. Natalie (9), the youngest, spent most of her time with her parents and governess

In a letter dated February 28th to his eldest son William, W.R. Coe detailed that Mai’s doctors were going to plan for her to attend Dr. Ford’s sanitarium in Kerhonkson, New York in two weeks’ time. First established as a government-funded campaign to address tuberculosis, a sanitarium (also known as a sanitorium) referred to a medical facility specially run for patients suffering from long-term illnesses. Ultimately arrangements for Mai were unable to be made for 1919. In April, W.R. Coe relayed that Mai’s condition was critical as the inflammation had spread to her brain. There was a conference between four doctors who determined that although her condition was very critical, she would recover in several months.  W.R. Coe told his children, “We must pray and hope for the best”.  The children had bouts with their own illnesses early on in the year, with William having influenza, and Henry having the mumps.

A happier occasion came in March when W.R. Coe wrote to William for his birthday: “Just a few lines to wish you many happy returns of your birthday. I have put today in the Scandinavian Trust Company as a present for you $25 from mother and $25 from myself (equivalent to $700 today.) Just think of it when I was twenty years old I was sent to Europe by Johnson and Higgins on a very important business mission”. Later that month, after admonishing William for spending more money in his first few months of university than W.R. Coe earned in the first three years of his business career, he included a heartfelt note at the end of his letter. “I do not want you to feel that it is my desire to be hard on you, I am trying to get you to realize early in life the proper principles which in my judgement can only be for your benefit. I want you to feel at the bottom of your heart that in addition to being your father I am your friend and it is my intense desire to help you in every way that I can. I want your confidence, and when you are in  trouble or have any difficulties, I want you to feel free to come and discuss them frankly with me”.

In the spring, Mai Coe was well enough to attend Cousin Marion Rogers’ wedding with their family. Natalie was the flower girl. By end of May, W.R. Coe wrote Robert that Mai was rapidly improving, but it would be another five to six weeks before she could get out of bed and stand. If she was well enough, they planned to go to their ranch home in Cody, Wyoming by private car.

With regard to school and other extracurricular activities, W.R. Coe attended Prize Day at Fay School for Henry and Anniversary Day at St. Paul’s School for Robert.  Anniversary Day was a holiday to mark Dr. Shattuck’s birthday as the founder and donor of St. Paul’s. Robert visited Henry at Fay and took him out to lunch, which was a treat.  Having spent $20 on a motor car to do so, W.R. Coe asked that the boys not make a habit of it. Henry took up roller skating and participated in his school’s Red Cross drive. Robert was a member of the Literary Society and the Scientific Society. William pursued soccer, swimming, hockey and gymnasium activities while at school.

It was a big year for Natalie as she started school and was head of her class. She reportedly asked W.R. Coe if she could attend school seven days a week, and W.R. Coe mentioned to his sons he suspected that would wear off quite quickly.

In October W.R. Coe wrote to his sons, “We are at Oyster Bay. Mother is taking quite an interest and goes around the house and grounds in a wheelchair every afternoon. She is improving fast.”  Despite their home having burned to the ground the year prior, in terms of building and improvements on the property, W.R. Coe wrote to Robert “Quite a lot of progress has been made on the house since the first of this year. Considerable progress is now being made with the stone work on the house. All the chimneys but one are on the house and they look very well.”  The Superintendent was William Proctor and one ledger indicates that there were sixty two employees at Oyster Bay specifically working for the greenhouses, farm, stable, gardens, and general estate work.  The Olmsted Brothers also did extensive work on the grounds at Planting Fields, having several key projects throughout the year.  Correspondence with W.R. Coe conveyed proposals for ventilators and the changing of steam pipes in the Camellia House, while the Olmsted print plan (#74) outlined water supply and drainage from the house. John E. Curley Plumbing & Heating out of Sea Cliff and Glen Cove supplied the pipe. 

In terms of plantings, W.R. Coe had been anxious to receive Countess of Derby roses, along with three elm trees for the property. There was also discussion between the Olmsted Brothers and W.R. Coe on logistics to remove a large elm from a nearby property to bring to Planting Fields along with a series of small pines. Plans to do a topsoil and subsoil excavation were also underway. The Olmsted Brothers wrote W.R. Coe for approval to plant in the vicinity of the Surprise Pond on either side of the walk between the terrace and flower gardens. They wrote of acquiring Japanese maple, azalea ‘Amoena’, heathers, Cotoneasters, and Bonaparte hedge for $18 a foot.  The Olmsted Brothers also wrote to W.R. Coe about purchasing the large specimens of Rhododendron maximum that he was interested in from Easter Nurseries.  Coincidentally, the nursery was owned and operated by the Olmsteds’ sister and brother. John and Frederick Olmsted wrote to W.R. Coe that it could be seen as a conflict of interest and that it was custom for them to not order plants from there without first informing buyers.

For the interior of the home, significant purchases for the year included the chandelier that is currently in the Dining Room of Coe Hall. It was purchased for the family by Charles of London for $1,850, or roughly $27,000 today. Prominent designers Lenygon & Morant also had a hand in the interior of Coe Hall and proposed several mantel pieces for the children’s rooms and Mai’s and W.R. Coe’s bedrooms for a total of $925 or $13,400 today. For the Coes’ other properties, there was mention of a mystery at the ranch with all of the fish in Irma Lake dying and a desire by W.R. Coe, with help from the Olmsted firm, to expand his gardens at the adjoining lots of their NYC property on East 83rd Street. In December, W.R. Coe went duck and quail hunting. In one letter to Henry he wrote “I am bringing back quail and opossum which we are going to eat tonight”.

Andrea Crivello, Associate Curator

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