A Winter's Tale—Dilatory Domiciles and Other Mysteries of the Gilded Age!

This past weekend, I was walking up the path to Coe Hall at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, as the afternoon faded away into the gloaming. I moved along the curving path as the main entry of the mansion hoved into view, and I realized, this is one of my favorite places.  How could it not be?

The mansion is a rambling and restrained exercise in the Cotswold-ian—at an extravagant scale, mind you—with grounds out of a dreamscape. Nothing could be more delightful, even in the darkest depths of winter!  

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Coe Hall—the Approach

I was on my way into the house for a lecture sponsored by Long Island Preservation (full disclosure, my wife Alexandra is the Executive Director), with the somewhat puzzling title of “Dilatory Domiciles, New York’s Gilded Elite on Long Island.”

The speaker was scholar and historian Jeannine Falino, who is an independent curator and museum consultant whose specialty is American decorative arts.  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what “dilatory” meant—but more on that later.

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Strapping and Studs—the Front Door

Once past the large strapped and studded oak front door,  more architectural and decorative treasures were revealed inside—a two-story-high limestone and timber reception hall, with dimly lit (as I like it) passageways leading off to other rooms in perfect synchronicity with the period atmosphere of the early 1920s when the house was built, and all meant to evoke the Medieval.

The house was designed by Walker & Gillette in 1918 for William Robertson Coe, who made millions in the insurance industry and his wife, Mai Rogers Coe, a Standard Oil heiress.

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William Robertson Coe

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The Reception Hall

Several years ago, Coe Hall’s Executive Director Henry Joyce went on a well-planned and systematic spending spree with curator Gwendolyn L. Smith, pulling together period appropriate furnishings. They scoured various sources, including auctions, antique stores, and online sales. Their goal: make the main rooms of the house look very close to what they were before the contents were dispersed in the 1950s and 60s when the house passed from private to public ownership.

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A Comer of the Gallery

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The Gallery, with the Duveen furniture in place

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The Buffalo Room, with original murals intact painted by artist Robert Winthrop Chanler

With the public’s continuing obsession with Mid-Century Modern in all its iterations, demand for such antiques is low—especially large scale ones needed to fill Medieval sized halls—and Mr. Joyce and Ms. Smith found bargains were to be had, and were able to purchase roughly 100 items to help fill out the furnishing in the main rooms of the house (there are 65 rooms).

Few have spaces to hold such over-scaled furniture, and fewer still have aspirations toward the castle-like that so many Gold Coast industrialists of the early 20th century had—everyone wanted a castle of some kind, it seemed.

The pair hit the mother lode with the auction of the estate of the famed and reclusive silver mining heiress Huguette Clark, who spent the last 20 years of her life in a New York City hospital being well tended to by nurses by her own choice, rather than illness.

In addition to a multi-floored penthouse aerie on Fifth Avenue that she never used, Clark’s estate sale from multiple residences that she never lived in, included furniture by Charles Duveen, the society decorator who happened to decorate the Coe’s house too. And so today, with the return of furnishings by Duveen similar to the originals, Coe Hall’s Gallery is a warm and inviting room, a truer semblance of its original self.

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Huguette Clark

As guests waited for the lecture to begin, we gathered in the baronial Dining Room for drinks.  Perhaps some of us thought that if we tried hard enough we could easily imagine ourselves as guests of the Coes a century ago, for it seemed as if nothing much had changed inside the house since it was finished in 1923. Nor outside, either.

Two-story-high windows on three sides look out into the gardens and seemingly unlimited open space. In fact, there is enough land at Planting Fields (409 acres) that there is no sensation of any suburban development outside of its gates at all. One truly feels that the place looks as it must have when the house was built, and the area was mostly rural and sprinkled with a mix of Gilded Age estates and modest farms from the 19th century.

A glance at a tall arrangement of forsythia on a table adorning one bay window (OK, it was fake but from five feet away utterly convincing) and suddenly one was hopeful that spring wasn’t too far around the corner.  Fifty plus degree temps last Saturday also added to this hopefulness—quickly quashed by this week’s snowfall!

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The Dining Room

After a stroll through the other ground floor rooms—the “Den” overlooking the Great Lawn a few steps up from the entrance hall and with a “secret bar,” a French-ified sitting room with light boiserie panelling and the original furniture donated by a Coe heir, and the previously mentioned Gallery with comfortable red, deeply upholstered fireside chairs—it was off to hear the lecture.

Ms. Falino gave a spirited and interesting talk showing the kinds of objects that those of great wealth filled their city and country houses with, including the previously mentioned Duveen.  Duveen was famous for mixing true antiques—expensive and with provenance—with Frankenstein-ian mishmashes he created in which not very important antiques were modified for the market to look more “authentic.” The result was interiors for the super rich of the day with the appearance of the layering of multiple generations of wealth, combined with practical living of the time.

For the likes of Mr. Coe, who came from humble beginnings in England  and immigrated here with his family as a teenager, the house and grounds created for him and his wife were a perfect fit, evoking Olde England but with all the latest technology and comforts. 

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Mai’s Bedroom with extravagant handpainted bird themed wallpaper

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Mai Rogers Coe

But back to “dilatory domiciles”—what does that mean? Ms. Falino read a passage from the New Yorker from July 24th, 1926, written right at the time that the Coe’s estate house had recently been finished, as follows:

Dilatory Domiciliates in Summer Social Register on increase. 13,000 names of shore and mountain dwellers, but little change in fashionable resorts. Good places are Newport, Southampton, Bar Harbor. These places have grown larger to give birth to East Hampton and Northeast Harbor. Cal. and Fla. not popular, with exception Palm Beach. Rapid spread of isolated country places on shore lines from N.Y. to Canadian border, such as Millbrook, N.Y. Today nice people even live in Forest Hills. Le Grande Monde grown so large it stretches from Bernardsville & Peapack, N.J. to Mount Desert Island in Maine. Newport, Bar Harbor & Southampton blaze like three emeralds in stomacher, instead of as they used to, shining solitaire.

My favorite part of that description is, of course—“Today, nice people even live in Forest Hills.” Even though it meant they were living in—OMG—Queens?  Apparently so…

So what exactly are “dilatory domiciles”?

As explained in the description of the lecture, it is a phrase from the famed Social Register (still in business by the way) and explained thusly:  Families of great fortune sought to demonstrate their new status by building vast Fifth Avenue mansions filled with precious objects, important painting collections, and hosting elaborate fêtes and balls. This is the moment of Mrs. Astor’s “Four Hundred,” the rise of the Vanderbilts and Morgans, Maison Worth, Tiffany & Co., Duveen, and Allard. Old and new wealth competed in expending small fortunes on country estates, also known as “dilatory domiciles,” to which they retreated for casual or seasonal residences.

In other words, a vast and very fancy country house. Ms. Falino showed both city and country house interiors of the time, the objects that adorned them, as well as ball dresses and costumes, jewelry, and even a pair of enameled opera glasses decorated with platinum and diamonds, that were made for Florence Schloss Guggenheim that likely cost as much a Gold Coast mansion on Long Island.

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Florence Schloss Guggenheim’s opera glasses, inscribed “FSG”

Ms. Falino finished, and it was off to have a final drink and treats in the Dining Room, a chance to meet Ms. Falino and chat about her talk. The darkness outside enveloped the house, but the warm incandescent bulbs of the enormous chandelier, and the fringed shades of the Edwardian era lamps, lent the house a cozy air, despite its enormous size.

What about the other great houses, I wondered—did those owners also collect beautiful things, were they knowledgeable about antiques, art, and architecture? Including those with the rags- to-riches story like Mr. Coe, many of whom had little formal education? Did they hire specialists in these areas to help them? Were some of these vast houses filled with dreck, like so many of the McMansions of our day are?

Ms. Falino confirmed that, yes indeed, many hired specialists to help them amass collections of art, antiques, and to furnish and design their houses. Some like Coe, became expert and knowledgeable collectors. But how widespread that kind of story was is hard to tell, she said, since so many of the houses are now gone, and the furnishings and objects long ago dispersed. No one has looked at this in a scholarly way, either.

On Long Island’s North Shore for example—the fabled “Gold Coast”—there once were more than 1,000 estates in the heyday before 1930, and now only about 300 of them survive either as private houses, or institutions. Most of the ones with vast acreage have been radically reduced by suburban subdivisions built after World War II. Planting Fields and Coe Hall are truly unique in that so much of the place is intact, and after many years of neglect, also well maintained.

Now dark, I set off for my car and the ride home. I couldn’t help but glance around and think of spring and summer at Planting Fields, and the transformation of the grounds during the coming seasons. Herewith, some images from last summer, and fond memories of an afternoon spent walking among Planting Fields’ gardens and lawns:

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The amazing Spider Leaf Maple (Acer palmate “Ornatum’) not far from the front door of Coe Hall.

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The Sunken Garden and pool, originally a tennis court and renovated by the Coes for this garden.

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One of the summer greenhouses

Oak Leaf Hydrangea and Echinacea

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Blue Atlas Cedar

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Hydrangea serrata ’Beni’—Tea of Heaven