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Planting Fields exhibit digs into Coe family's roots

Mai Coe walks through the Italian Garden at

Mai Coe walks through the Italian Garden at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. Credit: Planting Fields Foundation

A short walk outside the iron-gated entrance of Coe Hall is a beech tree, unremarkable on the lush grounds of Planting Fields Arboretum State Park but for an identifying plaque. The tree is a seedling from one of two colossal beeches the Gold Coast estate’s original proprietor, Mary "Mai" Rogers Coe, had excavated from her beloved childhood home in a Massachusetts fishing town and ferried across Long Island Sound.

It is an apt introduction to what resides behind the stately façade of the Tudor Revival mansion. From Pursuit to Patronage: Industries and Ambitions That Influenced the Legacy of Mai Coe” digs up a host of artifacts and photographs from the museum’s holdings to expose the roots — both familial and financial — of Coe’s enduring patronage.

According to associate curator Andrea Crivello, the exhibition is unlike any the historical repository has mounted. “It approaches the family in a different way,” she explains. “It is less ‘Coe-centric,’ going further back on Mai’s side to her maternal grandfather and father.” By doing so, the show also documents the country’s transition from whale oil to rock oil and how it set the stage for Mai’s legacy.

Archival materials, including rare books, letters and transaction records, re-create the story of 19th century sea captain Peleg Winslow Gifford, who left his family for months to years at a time in pursuit of whales and a lucrative livelihood. Of particular interest are images capturing scenes from expeditions and a clip from the 1922 film “Down to the Sea in Ships,” incorporating live whaling footage.

In an effort to have audiences connect more personally to this way of life, visitors are encouraged to envision their own roles on a whale hunt, inserting written responses in provided glass bottles that may later be posted on social media. “We want to encourage dialogue, to have people engage with what they are seeing and not just passively learning,” says Crivello.

Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to Mai’s father, Henry Huttleston Rogers, the son of a successful whale oil merchant who became a major stockholder and director of the Standard Oil Trust. Visitors can imagine themselves aboard his prize-winning yacht, fraternizing with the likes of Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. The friendship he shared with them — and with Helen Keller — and the backing he gave their endeavors was continued by Mai. “He was not a robber baron, but a true philanthropist,” says Crivello.

Mai also threw her support behind emerging musical and artistic talents, including Everett Shinn, whose murals decorate the property’s Tea House, and Robert Winthrop Chanler, whose lifelike depictions of roaming buffalo cover the walls of Coe’s breakfast room. “The show puts the artists’ works and how they came to be in the context of Planting Fields,” says Crivello, “and Mai’s role in cultivating it.”

WHAT “From Pursuit to Patronage: Industries and Ambitions That Influenced the Legacy of Mai Coe”

WHEN | WHERE 11:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m. daily, Friday through Sept. 30, Coe Hall, Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, 1395 Planting Fields Rd., Oyster Bay

INFO $5; 516-922-9200,

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