Planting Fields: From Mansion To Historic Site

Coe Hall

The turn of the century represented the zenith of The  Gilded Age. The captains of industry built the once-mighty middle-class and needless to say, they had plenty of money left to themselves. Land for the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, which includes the Coe Hall Historic House Museum, was first purchased in 1904 by Helen MacGregor Byrne, wife of New York City lawyer James Byrne. That land included six farming properties, which she dubbed as the “Upper Planting Fields Farm.”

Between 1904 and 1910, modest work was done to create hedges, perennial borders, and espaliered fruit trees. However, most of the property was left undeveloped. In 1913, the 353-acre site was purchased by William Robertson Coe, an insurance and railroad executive, and his wife Mary “Mai” Huttleston (née Rogers) Coe, the youngest daughter of millionaire industrialist Henry H. Rogers, who had been a principal of Standard Oil. That’s serious money. The couple begin to create the property that stands as today.

Italian Garden pool

The 67-room Coe Hall included greenhouses, gardens, woodland paths and plant collections. Planting Fields also features an herbarium of more than 10,000 pressed specimens. As the Gilded Age boomed along, trees were ferried across Long Island Sound in mid-winter. Roads were widened. Plants included rhododendrons, Japanese crabapples and cherries, and forest and specimen trees, lindens, Scotch and red pines, oaks. 

In 1918, tragedy struck as the property’s first mansion burned to the ground. Its replacement, the present Coe Hall, was constructed between 1918-21 in the Tudor Revival-style. According to newspaper stories of the day, Coe Hall quickly became famous as the Coe’s “interest in rare species of trees and plant collections made the estate a botanical marvel.”

Sadly, Mrs. Coe died in 1924 at age 49. As with other great North Shore mansions, the world of the Coe’s came to an end with World War II. By the 1950s, the great suburban boom was underway. In 1949, the estate was deeded to the state of New York to become a state park.

The Planting Fields Arboretum was thus born. Between 1955 and 1964, the land was also used as a temporary campus for a State University of New York (SUNY) college of science and engineering. By 1968, the last of the Planting Fields was used for SUNY purposes. All facilities and grounds became the current day Planting Fields.

Camellia House

Today, the arboretum and state park covers more than 400 acres in Upper Brookville. Operated by a foundation, the fields include the Coe Hall mansion, hosting an annual summer concert series, primarily focused on jazz. As its website states: “Planting Fields is one of only a few surviving estates on Long Island on its original acreage, intact with all its buildings and its grandly furnished mansion. Nearly a thousand such estates were built after the Civil War through about 1940, making this area the largest concentration of large estates anywhere in the U.S. Just under 60 percent of them survive today; about 400 are in residential use, most on reduced size lots. Planting Fields was one of the last of these estates to be created and is one of the most splendid, with 409-acres.”

The fields face a bright future. Planting Fields Arboretum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

In March, the Planting Fields Foundation was selected to participate in the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), which is administered by the American Alliance of Museums. 

The Foundation’s participation is made possible through funding provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). “We are honored to have the opportunity to participate in AAM’s highly regarded MAP program,” Planting Fields executive director Gina Wouters said, “Not only is it a reflection of our core values around standards of excellence, but the timing of this exercise is also perfectly aligned with the development of our Strategic Plan.” 

Coe Hall will reopen to the public on Friday, July 31. The grounds are currently open. Visit www.plantingfields.org to learn more.  

Joe Scotchie
Joe Scotchie is the editor of both The Roslyn News and New Hyde Park Illustrated News. In 2009, he won a New York State Press Association award for a sports feature. Joseph Scotchie’s past publications include biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Richard Weaver and a comprehensive history of the city of Asheville, North Carolina.

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