The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Twenty-Six

July 12-19, 1917 

On the morning of July 14, 1917, Kate Roosevelt sat at her well-worn writing desk to jot a few notes in her diary. She was probably enjoying the quiet breeze whispering through the open windows of her shingled farmhouse and the crisp scent coming from the tall pines that hovered over her small farm, Merdlemouth in Hightstown, New Jersey.

Her diary for that day recalled what she had done the day before, “Farmhands got some rye from the field near the woods. Dorothy and I to Princeton for afternoon tea with the Pynes. Miss Strichten and Maria Dayton were there, too.”

Moses Taylor Pyne, 1912

Merdlemouth was located just a short drive from Princeton University’s beautiful campus. Dorothy’s late -husband, Langdon Geer graduated from there in 1897 and it was like a second home to the Roosevelt-Geer Family. They often attended football games, lunched at the Nassau Inn and strolled among the ivy-covered structures that gave the campus and surrounding area an aura of old-English dignity.

After some exhaustive research, I could not find out who Miss Strichten and Marie Dayton were, but it didn’t take me long to recognize the name Pyne.

Moses Taylor Memorial Church

Moses Taylor Pyne was the grandson of the enormously wealthy, Moses Taylor, a name I knew well because the seaside chapel that is located just down the street from where I live in Elberon, New Jersey is a memorial to him. Built by his widow, Catherine Taylor, the church was designed by the famous New York City firm of McKim, Meade and White in a blend of informal seashore stick style and the more formal Gothic that was popular in the 1800s. It is not only a church, but an archive of architectural and historical interest containing a rare Tiffany Rose stained glass window and an original Roosevelt Pipe Organ still in perfect working order. It was the last organ that Kate Roosevelt’s late husband, Hilborne Roosevelt personally installed.

Dedicated in 1886, the Moses Taylor Memorial Church is only opened during the summer months when its wide wooden doors are swung open to catch the ocean breezes and allow the beautiful organ music to fill the air.

Moses Taylor Memorial Church, Tiffany Stained Glass Window

Given the fact that her husband manufactured and with his own hands, built the organ right into the church while it was under construction, I was pretty sure I knew why Kate and her daughter were going to take tea with the Moses Taylor Pynes. The two families were long-time friends.

Hilborne Roosevelt Organ installed in Moses Taylor Memorial Church, 1886

Moses Taylor Pyne was every bit as influential as his late maternal grandfather, Moses Taylor who was the first president of the National City Bank of New York and a principal stockholder of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. His mother, Albertina Shelton Taylor, married Percy Rivington Pyne, an English immigrant who made his money the old-fashioned way, he married into it.  On the other hand, their son, Moses Taylor Pyne married well. His wife, Anna Margaretta Stockton, came from a long-line of well-to-do New Jerseyans.

Moses Taylor Pyne in garden at Drumthwacket

On this July day in 1917, Moses and his wife, Anna had invited Kate Roosevelt and her daughter, Dorothy Geer to tea at their twelve-acre estate at 354 Stockton Street known as Drumthwacket. Purchased in 1893, Pyne enlisted Raleigh C. Gildersleeve, who had designed many of Princeton University’s buildings, to expand the home to a magnificent estate that included park-like landscaping, greenhouses, bridle paths, a dairy farm and Italian gardens. Two long additions were added on either side of the original structure that spread majestically like eagle’s wings. A rustic gate opened to a spot called “Lover’s Lane” where Princeton students and area residents were welcomed to take a stroll through.

In 1941, Pyne’s only grandchild, Agnes Pyne, sold Drumthwacket to an immigrant from Russia. Abraham Nathaniel Spanel used sections of the estate as a laboratory where he invented Latex and founded the company, Playtex International. In 1966, Spanel sold the estate to the state of New Jersey to be used as the governor’s official residence.

Drumthwacket Gardens

Moses Taylor Pyne’s legacy is laden with lists of his good deeds and philanthropy, but most impressive is his dedication to his alma mater, Princeton University. When he died in 1921 his obituary read, “The total amount of money that Pyne gave to Princeton University, its students, faculty and related institutions is truly incalculable.”

When a classroom, row of houses or parcel of land needed funding, Pyne donated the money. Many of the buildings on the Princeton campus that he funded were anonymously named after others. McCosh Hall is one, but Pyne Dormitory and Pyne Library are named in his honor. He often met the university’s annual deficit with a personal check.

It wasn’t just an ordinary home that Kate and Dorothy were socializing and sipping tea at in 1917. It was a mansion known as Drumthwacket that would someday become the official residence of the governor of New Jersey.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:

Photo Two:
Moses Taylor Pyne, 1912
public domain

Photo Three:
Moses Taylor Memorial Church
Moses Taylor Church Photo

Photo Four:
Moses Taylor Memorial Church, Tiffany Stained Glass Window
author photo

Photo Five:
Hilborne Roosevelt Organ installed in Moses Taylor Memorial Church, 1886
author’s photo

Photo Six:
Moses Taylor Pyne in garden at Drumthwacket
Historical Society of Princeton

Photo seven:
Drumthwacket Gardens
Library of Congress