The history of the present-day property on the famous “Gold Coast” of Long Island began between 1904 and 1912, when Helen MacGregor Byrne – wife of New York City lawyer James Byrne – purchased six farming properties which she collectively referred to as “Upper Planting Fields Farm”. The Byrnes hired landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf between 1904 and 1910 to create hedges, perennial borders, and espaliered fruit trees. Though notable features from this period are the Rose Arbor, the Circular Pool and the Green Garden Court, Coe recalled in later life, “Mrs Byrne had done very little in the shape of landscaping. She had a small lawn around the ridge of the residence” and next to it a cornfield. Most of the property, Coe recalled, was “just a jungle of scrub, locusts, and other trees”.
In 1913, William Robertson Coe purchased the house and 353-acre (143 ha) estate, and began today’s plantings and landscaping under the guidance of the Boston landscaping firm of Guy Lowell and A. Robeson Sargent, son of Charles Sargent, founder of the Arnold Arboretum. In 1915, Lowell and Sargent oversaw transport of two gigantic beeches from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the childhood home of Mary “Mai” Huttleston (née Rogers) Coe (who was the daughter of Henry H. Rogers of Standard Oil). The trees, with root balls 30 feet (9.1 m) in diameter, were ferried across Long Island Sound in mid-winter. Roads were widened and utility wires temporarily removed to make way. Only one of the two trees survived the journey. Unfortunately, the second beech tree has recently died, and was taken down in February 2006. However, the “Fairhaven Beech” will live on: seedlings were collected from the tree from 2000-2005.
Massive purchases of rhododendrons were made in England, Japanese crabapples and cherries, and forest and specimen trees, lindens, Scotch and red pines, oaks. Through the English nurseryman Glomar Waterer, who had sold Mr Coe the rhododendrons, came an offer in 1916 of an unusually fine collection of camellias located in Guernsey, for which the Camellia House was constructed by “Bobo” Sargent in autumn 1917, and filled with the plants grown in tubs that were shipped the following spring. Most of them were selected varieties of Camellia japonica but there were six Camellia reticulata, never before grown in the United States. Read more