Died: March 17, 1930
Married: J. Elizabeth Clark (died 1880); Edith Elliott Johnstone on October 1, 1884
From the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, April 11, 1997
Former multi-millionaire lived out quiet last years
By MARY B. HOTALING Special to the Weekender
SARANAC LAKE – Though Robert Habersham Coleman is virtually unknown here today, at the turn of the century he was a quietly prominent patient living in a fine home at 33 Church Street.
Coleman (1856-1930) was a bankrupt and tubercular iron magnate from Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
From 1742 to 1883, generations of his family had owned and operated the Cornwall Iron Furnace, which forged products for the American Revolution, and was well-known as the equal of contemporary English furnaces in size and output. Robert inherited the controlling interest at age 9, when his father died.
In 1889 Coleman's wealth was estimated at about $30 million, ahead of J. P. Morgan, Marshall Field, A. J. Drexel, and F. W. Vanderbilt. Most of his assets were in land, mines, ironworks and railroads. The Colemans lived in great luxury in Pennsylvania.
Richard E. Noble described their lifestyle in The Touch of Time published by the Lebanon County (PA) Historical Society in 1983: "The premier feature of the main house was its spacious music hall with high-vaulted ceiling and marvelous acoustics... Several rooms contained furniture from Napoleon's palace, while others were decorated with relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum...The stable was a large brownstone structure fitted with stained glass windows at either end. There were accommodations for nineteen horses and numerous carriages on the ground floor, while the upper level held quarters for an equal number of grooms and attendants... Each stall in the elaborate stable had gates crafted in richly textured wood and overlain with burnished brass. On the same property there were dog kennels...a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and a long row of greenhouses...Finally there was the work shop or "Play House", where the young millionaire continued to tinker and experiment...Bob Coleman was never happier than when he was showing off his properly to other people."
All of this grandeur came to an end when the last Coleman iron furnace was banked and shut down, a result of the financial panic of 1893. By 1896, Robert Coleman's fortune, his spirit and his health were gone. At age 40 he moved to Saranac Lake for his own health and that of his wife, Edith.
Few rental houses were available in the village at that early date, so when the decision was made to stay, a health seeker accustomed to luxury would most likely have sought out an architect. And that's exactly what Coleman did.
The only architect working here at that time (the first of several that Saranac Lake would soon have) was William L. Coulter, employed by the New York City firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Renwick.
A cottage for Coleman was one of the first projects the firm assigned to Coulter when he arrived here in 1896, and building was under way by September. That year the Essex County Republican reported "a number of cottages are being erected here by prominent people, that will soon be ready for occupancy. Among them [is] the house of Robert H. Coleman."
Since Coleman's address was given as New York (he still owned his mother's house at 340 Madison Avenue), he may very well have contacted the Renwick firm there. While it was the public perception that the house was Robert Coleman's, the deed was in Edith's name.
The G. T. Chellis survey map of 1896 locates the "Colman" Cottage on the top of the hill with frontage on both Church Street, the first fine residential district in the village, and River Street. Rather than matching the regular set-back of other houses with entries and addresses on Church Street, the Colemans built their house well to the rear of the street-line, evidently preferring the privacy and the view of Lake Flower at the top of the hill. Most of the house lot (3/5 of an acre, with 153.90 feet of frontage on Church Street) is now the playground for St. Bernard's School.
In 1988, Mildred Allen Derby remembered that the stone retaining wall on River Street below St. Bernard's auxiliary classrooms once supported the Colemans' tennis court. As a girl, Derby wanted to play tennis with the Colemans' daughter. Anne, but her mother told her she couldn't go, because Anne's mother had TB.
Another amenity was a boathouse on Lake Flower, also shown on the 1896 Chellis map, not directly opposite their house on the water, but near the intersection of Shepard Avenue.
Bruce N. Coulter, the architect's second son, wrote about an incident that took place there: "Bill [his older brother] told me that if I ever fell in — this was before I learned to swim - I was to be sure to hold my breath. Once I had a chance to follow his advice. I reached for something off the end of a dock down on River Street near the Colemans' and toppled into deep water, my toes catching on the end board of the dock. My idea of holding my breath was to blow out my cheeks and keep my mouth tightly shut, and for some reason my arms were rigidly extended and my fingers were spread and stiff. This is the way I remained for the ten seconds or so it took Bill to get to me and haul me out."
The few surviving photographs of Coleman's house show a sort of large, wood-shingled bungalow defined by a broad, low-pitched, hipped roof with a slight flare at the eaves, and a veranda spanning the entire northeast (front) and southeast sides. It was one of the first private houses in the village to be architect-designed, departing from the builder's pattern book formula. While grand for Saranac Lake, the Coleman cottage was for its owner a very modest house in which to live out his life in self-imposed exile.
In Coleman's 34 years here, he lived so quietly that he left few traces. When the Pontiac Club - sponsor of Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival - was founded in November of 1896, Robert H. Coleman was a charter member; his position on the list, second after Dr. Trudeau, suggests that he may have been one of the founders. When the building committee of the Lake Placid Episcopal Mission made a contract with Coulter on December 1, 1897, for design of a church, Robert H. Coleman, who lived less than two blocks from St. Luke's Episcopal Mission in Saranac Lake and would later be a member, was the committee treasurer. Other than that, beyond a listing in the 1902-03 Adirondack Directory, little is known of him.
When Edith succumbed to tuberculosis on May 20, 1903. E. L. Trudeau signed her death certificate. Robert Coleman raised their sons. Robert, William, Neyle and Ralph, and daughter Anne with the help of his sister, Ann Coleman Rogers, though the children were sent away to school.
Robert attended Yale, but left in 1905 to work as an engineer on the Panama Canal, later settling in Fairfield, Connecticut.
William attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, his father's alma mater, but he also left college and went West in 1906; in 1938 he lived in Kecoughtan, Virginia.
Little is known of the activities of Coleman's third son Neyle, but Anne married a man named Hoff and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A 22-year-old Ralph Elliot Coleman took his own life in 1910, and his father became almost a complete recluse.
Around 1912, Coleman opened a store in Saranac Lake specializing in fine Havana Cigars. His son William returned to help with it, and stayed on to take care of him when the store failed.
One quiet occupation of Coleman's was apparently bird-watching. In 1921 Coleman's "List of Adirondack Birds" was published by Alfred L. Donaldson, his near neighbor, in his two-volume A History of the Adirondacks.
Historian John Duquette described what the neighborhood was like in 1922: "The first [St. Bernard's] school house was a wood building that had been convened from a former residence and stood where the parking lot is between the church and the school at present. Next door, on a rise of ground between Church and River Streets, was a fine home known as the Coleman Cottage. Along the property line was a fence overgrown with a vine which bore prickly pods, which boys called 'wild cucumbers.' When thrown at a target, the pulpy missiles would burst with a splatter and, during recess, they served as ammunition in mock battles. Two years later, the school moved into a new building on River Street." One can imagine Robert Coleman watching the playground rough-housing from his window, the weight of his accumulated sorrows lifted briefly by the sight of boys at play.
According to Noble, Coleman, who was a casual baseball player at Trinity and a life-long fan, attended the 1925 funeral of New York Giants' pitcher Christy Mathewson, who had lived for a time as a patient in the Santanoni Apartments across Church Street.
After Robert Coleman's death at his sister's home in Hyde Park on March 15, 1930, the Saranac Lake house must have been rented for a time, as Derby recounted that Alfred Alvarez, who started "Swap Shop" on WNBZ Radio, moved in then.
In 1945 Coleman's property was acquired from Franklin County by St. Bernard's parish, which tore the house down to create the playground.
In Pennsylvania, the Coleman family maintained the Cornwall Iron Furnace even after it was out of blast, and donated the property in 1932. Today the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission administers it as a state historic site. According to Historic Preservation News, Cornwall Iron Furnace is the best preserved early iron-making site in the western hemisphere.