Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Big Old Houses: Long Island People

Big Old Houses: Long Island People
by John Foreman


This imposing Oyster Bay, Long Island mansion was designed in 1906 by Grosvenor Atterbury for a New York lawyer named James Byrne. In 1913, Byrne sold it to an insurance tycoon named William Robertson Coe (1869-1955) who, together with a wife and four children, enjoyed it for five short years. Then, in 1918, it burned to the ground.

Coe's English immigrant parents arrived at Ellis Island with ten children in 1883. A year later, 15-year-old Coe, a proto-Horatio Alger if ever there was, landed an office boy job at a maritime insurer subsequently absorbed by the Johnson & Higgins Insurance Company of New York. Now the pages of the calendar fly by, suddenly it's 1916, and Coe is Johnson & Higgins' president — although not without help.
There were three Mrs. Coes. The first (not illustrated) was Jane Falligant. She died unexpectedly in 1898 after only 5 years with Mr. C. The second, married in 1900, was Mai Rogers (1875-1924). She lasted 24 years and produced 4 children. Mai Coe was the daughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers, a founding partner of Standard Oil. Rogers' money and contacts inestimably boosted his son-in-law's insurance career. By 1913, Coe was able to buy the Byrne house and, when it burned in 1918, replace it with something grander.
I'm forever lamenting the cruel elimination of foundation plantings and bushy trees around big old houses in public hands. This is not a problem at the Coe house which, by the way, is called "Planting Fields." This place is so surrounded by luxurious trees and shrubs that I couldn't get one good distant shot.
Mai Coe died early too, although not as early as Jane Falligant. Mai was only 49 when she passed away at Planting Fields in 1924. Two years later, her widowed husband married a stylish divorcee named Caroline Graham Slaughter, seen below. Mai Coe's powerful father may have fueled the economic engine that built Planting Fields, but Caroline Coe was the mistress who steered it, grandly I should note, through the Roaring Twenties and the elegant Thirties.
There are gates and there are gates, and then there are gates like these, fabricated in 1712 for a Surrey estate called Carshalton Park. Coe bought them, including the stone pillars at either end, during a European shopping spree in 1921. They languished in a barn for 5 years before the Olmsted Brothers' firm, which was responsible for much of Planting Fields' landscape, convinced Coe to buy land on Chicken Valley Road and erect them at the foot of a new drive.
The main drive, a picturesque affair about half a mile in length, parallels a public road called, appropriately, Planting Fields Road. How I yearned to drive through those gates and approach the house as the Olmsteds intended. Alas, it wasn't going to happen. The gates are permanently closed and the entrance to the estate is now on Planting Fields Road. The view below is of the entry court in front of the east facade. That's the service wing on the left. Whereas I am told the Byrne house was destroyed completely, its replacement has very similar massing and sits on what looks to me to be the identical footprint.
The next two images show the eastern and western ends of the north facade. See what I mean about those trees?
Here's the western end of the house. An immense drawing room occupies the first floor, with a porch off its southern end. Mr. and Mrs. Coe's bedrooms are on the left and right sides of the second floor. The house was designed by society architects A. Stewart Walker (1876-1952) and Leon Gillette (1878-1945) and completed 2 years after the 1919 date that's carved into a stone on the north facade.
The sailing ship on the Bounding Main, facing west above the porch, is an homage to the maritime insurance business. Interesting fact: Johnson & Higgins were insurers of the R.M.S. Titanic, which sank the year before Coe bought the original Planting Fields.
The south side of the house overlooks a complex of formal gardens and greenhouses that contrast with the naturalistic sweep of the Olmsted designed grounds. If you take a moment (and/or care to) it's possible from the images below to piece together the look of the south facade, which is appealingly socked in by specimen trees and plantings.
Here's the kitchen court, with the back or south side of the service wing on the right.
I'm guessing they topped the house out in 1919. The Coes didn't move in until 1921.
Walker and Gillette were famous for mansions and townhouses, 16 of the former on Long Island alone. Walker married the daughter of Grenville Kane, an apotheosis of old line Tuxedo Park society, the result being a spate of W & G commissions in Tuxedo Park. (One of the latter, a swanky stone mansion enlarged in 1910 for Ambrose Monell, president of the International Nickel Corp., was occupied for a time by yours truly). As the era of the private palace ebbed, the firm became equally adept at big commercial buildings. In fact, if you live or work in Manhattan, you may walk past a former Walker & Gillette mansion (like the French or the Italian Consulates, at Fifth and 74th and Park and 69th) or a stylish skyscraper (like the Fuller Building at Madison and 57th, or the stainless street-fronts of the Empire State Building on Fifth and 34th), every day.
Coe's architects gave him a scholarly Tudor Revival mansion, not copied from, but certainly inspired by, several Grade 1 English manor houses, notably Moyns Park in Essex — at least on the outside. Planting Fields on the inside is a thoroughly modern (in the upscale early 20th century sense of the word), if admittedly huge, place to live. The living and entertaining spaces are well designed and interesting to look at; the kitchen suite is conveniently close to breakfast and dining rooms; owners' bedroom suites are off at one end of the house; their children are billeted at the other; guests are self-contained in suites on 2 and 3; and the servants' bedrooms are located to provide privacy when they're off duty and proximity when they're needed. Let's begin on the first floor.
The view below shows the double-height entrance hall looking south. The dining room is in the distance; the front door is out of sight on the left. We're going to the "den" (a word I struggle with in the context of old houses), located down a corridor behind the camera.
This severe barrel vaulted hallway strikes a period note at odds with Planting Fields' essential luxury. The door on the right leads to the gents'.
Coe's interior decorator, Charles Duveen (a.k.a. 'Charles of London'), was the estranged brother of famous art dealer, Joseph Duveen. Mr. Charles had a knack for tricking up sort-of-16th century looking rooms for comfort hungry American plutocrats. Behind a panel on the wall is a hidden bar. (Remember, this was the era of Prohibition).
If you head west from the entrance hall, you'll pass the main stair en route to the gallery. The third image below shows what this room looked like in 1925.
Six years before his death in 1955, Mr. Coe deeded Planting Fields to the State of New York. By the early 1960s the furniture was gone and the house had become a horticultural study campus of the State University of New York. Actually, SUNY at Oyster Bay was a temporary campus. The college cleared out in 1971 as soon as its new home was completed out at Stony Brook, L.I.
But wait, how did all that furniture get back? Although it looks original, it's not. The Planting Fields Foundation, which has operated the house as a museum since 1978, has a clever director named Henry Joyce and an equally clever curator named Gwendolyn Smith who together have managed, through a combination of charm, sharp negotiation and auction attendance, to make a growing percentage of the house look like the Coes never left. Among their recent booty, mixed in with thrift shop textiles, pieces generously returned by family members, and re-imagined clerical robes, are 54 Coe-appropriate items from the recent Huguette Clark auction at Christie's.
At the west end of the gallery, through the arch at right in the image below, is the very big drawing room whose porch we saw from the outside. How divinely furnished it was in the 1920s. I've seen a lot of drawing rooms with bookcases in big old houses that don't have separate libraries. (This was, in fact, the case with Mr. Monell's house in Tuxedo).
The drawing room is doubtless useful as an auditorium, but I wish Joyce and Smith would get to work on it. The balcony in the second image below is part of a sinuous mezzanine that overlooks both drawing room and gallery. It's accessed via a stair behind that arched door in the second image below.
Back on the main floor is a "writing room" that gazes south over a garden terrace. Small scale retreats are a necessity in a big place like this, where one assumes there'll always be guests, family and servants roaming around.
Let's return east across the gallery towards the entrance hall. Things to note in the image below: mezzanine gallery; remarkably authentic looking furniture; not-really-rare textiles hung from the railings with binder clips.
Opposite the main stair is my personal measure of a top flight house — a phone room.
Next to the main stair is a mud room, with a bison head that's been here for the duration.
In the southwest corner of the entrance hall is the door to a reception room that strikes an entirely different note from Charles of London's "Lord and Taylor Tudor." Lucien Alavoine, successor to the famous Jules Allard, "decorateur" of palaces from Paris to Newport, designed the exquisite boiserie. I'm not sure about the paint colors — I suspect Alavoine intended something a little subtler — but the room is still a knockout. The furniture is original, generously returned to the house by Mai Coe's daughter Natalie.
In the southeast corner of the entrance hall is the ladies' dressing room and lounge. My late mother always said you could tell a high class place by the ladies' room.
Another groined and barrel vaulted hallway leads south from the entrance hall to a theatrical looking Elizabethan dining room with huge leaded windows on three sides. The arched door in the second image leads to an unusual breakfast room.
The bison head was a clue, but the breakfast room is a giveaway. Mr. Coe, the English-born business baron, was nuts for cowboys and Indians. You think I'm exaggerating? In 1910, Coe actually bought Buffalo Bill Cody's Wyoming hunting camp, called Irma Lake Lodge, and since 1948 the William Robertson Coe Collection of American pioneer manuscripts, diaries and photographs has been resident at Yale.
Besides Charles Duveen and Lucien Alavoine, Coe hired society muralist Robert Chanler to paint a buffalo hunt on his breakfast room walls. It's one of Chanler's few surviving works.
A swing door on the north wall of the breakfast room leads to a hall outside the kitchen suite, and here things go abruptly south.
The "decorator showcase" is the bane of many an old house. The "decorator kitchen" in the image below replaces what doubtless was a terrific old serving pantry. To be fair — not that I'm inclined to be fair where decorator showhouses are concerned — SUNY probably ruined it first. What we've seen of the Coe house so far seems thrillingly intact, but that's because we haven't seen the service suites, or hardly any of the bathrooms.
Save for the acoustical ceiling, the servants' hall is basically intact. SUNY gutted the original kitchen and partitioned the footprint into a warren of smaller spaces. An original annunciator survives on the north wall of the servants' hall.
Let's get out of here, head north out of the dining room, cross the entrance hall, and take the main stair to the second foor. The beautiful iron work in this house is the work of Samuel Yellin (1885-1940), probably America's most talented and successful blacksmith.
The second floor layout is interesting and well conceived: the owners are on the left, guests in the middle, children on the right, and servants beyond the kids on the lower right.
That raised runway along one side of the second floor hall, seen below looking west, must historical antecedents, but I have no idea what they are. Two guestrooms, labeled East and West respectively, open onto it.
East and West are seen below, each credibly furnished by Joyce and Smith. Bathrooms, alas, are all locked up.
A small lobby at the west end of the hall separates Mr. Coe's bedroom on the right from his wife's on the left.
Here's Mr. Coe's room, in 1925 and today. After all those furnished rooms, "today" comes as a shock. I yearned to see the bathroom and didn't care that it was ruined. Mysteriously, I couldn't make it happen.
My takeaway from the Coe house is no matter what needs to be done, Joyce and Smith will get to it. The 2010 reproduction of Robert Chanler original murals in Mrs. Coe's bedroom speak to historic/aesthetic dedication way beyond the norm. Chanler's canvas panels, painted for Mai Coe in 1921, were removed when Caroline Coe arrived in 1926, then lost in a fire. Scenic artist Polly Wood-Holland reproduced them from old photos. Needed next is a plumbing magician to reverse SUNY's vandalism of Mai Coe's Elsie deWolfe designed bath.
Let's return down the hall towards the main stair, peer over the rail at the entrance hall below, and turn south for a look at the children's wing.
Son Bill's bath has survived in original condition.
The former bedrooms of sons Bill, Robert and Henry contain displays relating to the history of the property and the people who built and designed it.
Daughter Natalie's room is more of the same.
A few words about Natalie Coe: Here she is on her wedding day in May, 1934. The depression doesn't seem to have crimped her father's style to any great extent. The New York Times, reporting on her debut during the dark days of 1930, described the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton as "transformed to represent, as nearly as possible, Cherokee Plantation, the old home of her father and stepmother ... A winding hedge of lofty cedar trees led ... up the broad grass-carpeted stairway to the portico of the Southeern Colonial homestead, red brick facade with four white columns and heavy cornices and pediment reaching to the ceilng, which had been covered with blue gauze dotted with silver stars to represent the sky."
The groom was Commendatore Leonardo Vitetti, an Italian diplomat and scholar of medieval poetry. From 1950 to 1956, Count Vitetti represented Italy at the United Nations.
The governess's room is furnished; the servants' rooms are offices.
I'm ready to go upstairs, but the hugely hospitable Mr. Joyce is again inexplicably shy. (Insert frowny face here).
Instead, we go downstairs, out the front door, and wind up at the Italian Garden.
From its beginning, the 353-acre Planting Fields estate has been a horticultural showcase of specimen trees and shrubs, planned landscapes and intensive greenhouse cultivation. There are over 1000 varieties of azalea and rhododendron on the grounds, huge collections of everything from orchids to cacti in the main greenhouse, and 80 different types of camelia in a greenhouse devoted to nothing else.
This column being about houses, we can't leave without a look at the tea house, built in 1915 and decorated by Elsie de Wolfe (1858-1950). Very few of her commissions survive, but this one not only endures, it is complete and intact — right down to custom made electric fixtures that look like vases of flowers, wonderfully muted de Wolfe signature treillaged walls, amusing painted furniture (that's Mai Coe's profile on the settee) and rococo murals by Everett Shinn.
OK, one more thing: the Camelia House.
Planting Fields Arboretum is a terrific destination, not just for wandering around amazing grounds and a wonderful old house, but for its host of planned programs and activities — from Summer Theatre to a Night of Magic at Coe Hall, from the Annual Champagne Soiree to a Billy Joel Tribute, from Murder, Madness and Poe to Cocktail Culture at Coe Hall. The link is www.plantingfields.org.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
Contact John Foreman here
Click here for NYSD Contents