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The American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy American Institute for Economic Research

CONNECTIONS: Cottage industry

By Tuesday, Sep 10, 2019 Life In the Berkshires

While Frederick Stark Pearson, the first owner of what is now the American Institute for Economic Research campus, rose from poverty and died tragically before his 55th birthday, the second owner, Prentiss Loomis Coonley, was born to wealth and lived one month beyond his 90th birthday.

Coonley was born in Chicago in 1880. His father, John C. Coonley, was a successful businessman. His mother, Lydia Avery Coonley, was a socialite, author, activist and suffragette. From a position of wealth and social prominence, Lydia boldly supported Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony.

In part due to her monetary contributions, Hull House was established. Addams wrote, at an early point in the development of Hull House in Chicago, that her entire working capital was $237, of which $137 was a gift from Lydia. Lydia was a lifelong friend and supporter of Susan B. Anthony. Lydia gave more than money.

Anthony wrote to Lydia on August 23, 1897, “…and have selected you to be one of the special friends to sit on the platform…and be a sister to me.” Sitting next to Anthony on a platform in 1897 took courage.

John and Lydia had four sons; Prentiss was the youngest. He earned an A.B. from Harvard in 1903. After graduation, he was vice president of Coonley Manufacturing (enamelware) as well as an officer in the companies of Link Belt, Electric Steel, Howe Chain Company, Walworth Manufacturing, C.B. Livestock Company, Nugget Steel Casting and Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf, and a director of the Chicago Trust Company.

In 1905 he married Mary Belle Lord. They had two daughters: Alice (born 1906) and Eleanor (born 1911). Initially the Coonley family established their household on a great estate in Lake Forest, Illinois, but in 1935 Franklin Delano Roosevelt named Coonley the first director of the Division of Business Cooperation — part of the National Industrial Recovery Act — and the family sold the Illinois residence and moved to Washington, D.C. Through it all, the family had a connection to the Berkshires.

The Butler Swan cottage. Photo courtesy Austen Riggs Center, of which it is a part today

It was Austen Riggs who brought the Coonley family to the Berkshires. Riggs founded his therapeutic community in 1919. Mary Lord Coonley was on the first board of trustees. Throughout the critical first years, either Mary or Prentiss served on the board. Riggs died in 1940. It was another critical time; many assumed the center would die with its founder. The trustees labored to provide continuity and assure survival of Riggs Center. In 1940 Prentiss was named president of the Riggs Foundation and, in 1943 and 1944, was named chairman of the board of trustees. Mary Coonley died in 1944, but Prentiss carried on. The Coonley-Riggs connection lasted more than a quarter century, from 1919-46. It was a connection that some think saved the institution.

Daughter Alice Coonley attended Vassar and Barnard colleges but left school at the onset of the Depression to become head secretary for the Riggs Foundation. She remained in the position until her marriage in 1936. The daughters, Alice and Eleanor Coonley and Alice and Margaret Riggs, were close friends and bridesmaids at one another’s weddings.

Prentiss and Mary Coonley purchased Edgewood in 1926, and hired the New York architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich (the architects of High Lawn).

The plan was to tear down the Pearson house and fashion a new Berkshire cottage in the style of houses Prentiss and Mary had seen in Cotswold. While simple in construction, these Cotswold bungalows — some built as early as the 14th century — were distinguished by the building material: stone of brownish-gray and purplish tones. The problem confronting them was where to find the stone.

Elliot C. Brown was hired as contractor and with his foreman Harry Polhemus, a search began for quarried stone that would match the Cotswold stone. Late in 1929, Brown and Polhemus found it in Monterey on the farm of Marshall Stedman in a quarry long abandoned and forgotten. The find signaled a promising beginning.

Prentiss Coonley’s tombstone. Photo courtesy Find A Grave

The Coonleys decided to keep Pearson’s 50-stop organ. Moreover, architectural plans incorporated the “present building” and “existing chimney.” Apparently the Coonleys did not tear all of Edgewood down, but saved both organ and music room. The plans were elaborate and included a pink marble tub that had been displayed at the Chicago World Fair of 1893: interior walls of limestone, doors set into barrel vaults, men’s and women’s tennis rooms with lavatories in the basement, glazed doors and adjustable interior shelves in the kitchen, and custom cabinetry in the dressing rooms.

In November 1931, according to Bernard Drew in “History of Great Barrington,” “Carpenters, plumbers, and electricians dropped their tools never to complete their work on the building.”

There seems to be general agreement that work halted because Coonley lost all his money and was forced to sell. There seems to be support for only one of those three ideas. Inspection of the house does indicate that some interior decoration was not completed. However, the house was not sold until 1944, the year Mary Coonley died. After her death, Prentiss moved to houses in D.C. and New York. From 1926 through 1944, society columns note that “the Prentiss Coonleys motored over from their estate in Great Barrington.” Finally, did Coonley, FDR’s “Washington economist,” go belly up? If he had, it would have been news, and there is no mention of it in newspapers. Still, Coonley, FDR’s man during the Great Depression, like Pearson before him, would have been happy to see AIER, an economic research institute, in residence.


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