Historic Oyster Bay camellia house to get makeover

The Camellia House, a greenhouse, at The Planting The Camellia House, a greenhouse, at The Planting Fields Arboretum will be getting a $700,000 renovation. (Dec. 15, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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When the Coes finished building a greenhouse for camellia trees in 1917 on their Oyster Bay estate, they could view the bloom from a balcony.

The balcony, at the camellia greenhouse in Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, is closed due to structural problems with the staircase that leads up to it. But last week the nonprofit that runs the property won a $250,000 grant from the state to help fund a $700,000 restoration to fix the balcony and do other work.

The grant comes out of $716 million of statewide economic development aid announced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"It's very important to maintain the camellia house because . . . [Planting Fields is] on the National Register of Historic Places," said Henry Joyce, executive director of the Planting Fields Foundation. "The camellia house was built nearly 100 years ago and it has certain areas of deterioration."

The camellia greenhouse is part of Planting Fields Arboretum, 409-acre state park that was the Gold Coast estate of insurance magnate William R. Coe and his wife, Mai Rogers Coe, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune. The foundation operates the property, which includes a 65-room Tudor Revival mansion called Coe Hall, and does fundraising.

The work on the 10,000-square-foot camellia greenhouse is complicated: The foundation has sunk and needs to be raised; some of the mortar between the bricks has crumbled, and some bricks need to be replaced; and a decorative staircase and marble details need to be cleaned and reset.

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In other work, special metal struts that support the glass have to be replicated; the ornamental staircase needs to be repaired; and an ornamental pool needs replacement tiles. Some of the materials need to be specially made to match the building.

"It's a highly specialized restoration project," Joyce said. "It has to be done by specially trained preservation architects and preservation builders who do this, and specially trained engineers who know about historic greenhouses."

The foundation has already raised some of the funds for the project and with the state grant, it can begin the work next year. Joyce said they will need to raise the remaining money to complete the work.

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They hope to finish the restoration in 2015, before the building's 2017 centennial.

Camellias are trees originally from Asia that flower during winter months and need to be protected from freezing temperatures.

"In the winter when nothing else is in flower outside, the camellia house is just ravishingly beautiful," Joyce said.

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