Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Horseback Dinner

Since 1937 commuters heading up the Henry Hudson Parkway have long puzzled over the enormous granite arcade half buried in a jungle of Norway maples and Virginia creeper on the steep slope of Fort Tryon Park at the northern end of Manhattan. Although it appears to be a section of a misplaced Roman aqueduct it is actually a part of the most elaborate private driveway in New York City. One hundred years ago its creator, CKG Billings, drove his four-in-hand coach through the arcade, and up the 1600 foot double switchback driveway from a newly paved Riverside Drive, heading for Tryon Hall, his lavish estate at the top of the hill, 250 feet above the Hudson. This luxury alone cost him $200,000 in 1908. He indulged himself in many more extravagancges and is remembered today for one in particular-his celebrated “horseback dinner” of 1903. The iconic photograph of this event is considered the apogee of wretched excess in the Gilded Age.

Appropriately Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings was born in Saratoga, New York in 1861 when Saratoga was the epicenter of America’s passion for horse racing. Billings would go on to become a dominant figure in American horse racing for almost fifty years. He grew up in Chicago where his entrepreneurial father was a principal in the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company during the time when this new boomtown was largely lit by gaslight. After college he joined his father’s firm, eventually inheriting controlling interest in the company and, nearing the age of 40, retired from business to devote his time to his growing stable of horses. In 1901 he moved his family and his horses to New York City, acquired acreage on the largely undeveloped north end of Manhattan. He announced his arrival in the world of Gotham’s plutocrats and sportsmen with the construction of what the NY Times called, “The most luxurious and complete stable ever built”. This elaborate 25,000 square foot horse palace had 22 stalls (each with a brass plaque bearing the name of the occupant), a room for 20 carriages, another just for sleighs, a complete blacksmith shop and forge and an Edison dynamo to furnish electric light, steam heat and hot water. Topped by a huge curving roof, numerous towers and cupolas, the structure was 250 long and could be seen for miles. The two main towers sported huge weather vanes, one with a figure of his favorite trotting horse, “Little Boy” and the other with his famous mare “Lucille”.

Evidently Billings thought that one extravagance deserved another, so he planned a horseback dinner for 36 of his fellow sportsmen from the Equestrian Club in his new 75-foot indoor training ring. Word leaked out and crowds of newspaper reporters and the merely curious gathered around his entrance gates, craning their necks to see the fabulous stable and all of the glamorous visitors. Billings decided to quietly move the party to the privacy of Sherry’s elegant grand ballroom at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Horses rented from a riding stable were brought up in the freight elevator and arranged in a circle around a large table. Each saddle was fitted with a tray and saddlebags were filled with ice to chill bottles of Champagne fitted with rubber hoses that the diners could use to sip wine without dropping their glasses. His fellow Equestrian Club members, all in white tie, were mounted and a groom attended each horse. The waiters were dressed as if for a hunting party in scarlet coats and white breeches. The floor was covered with several inches of sand and uninvited newspapermen speculated about the mess that the horses would surely leave behind. They needn’t have worried-Billings arranged for more grooms to tidy up when the occasion arose. The horses dined as well, each furnished with a feeding trough filled with oats. The $50,000 bill included a photographer from the celebrated Byron Company to document this unique event. Byron’s photograph remains a true icon from the Gilded Age.

Now that his prized horses had a comfy home it was time to build a villa as a full-time residence for his human family. To the west of the stables, on a promontory 250 feet above the Hudson, a huge turreted chateau arose. Vaguely French in inspiration and described at the time as “In the style of Louis XIV”, the house had several large towers, a Mansard roof along with a 75 foot marble swimming pool, squash courts and bowling alleys-neighbors referred to Tryon Hall as a castle. The final cost was $2,000,000 and it was generally considered among the most lavish private houses on the island. Beginning in 1907 Billings lived here with his wife, two children and 23 servants.

Down below, on the river, he built a dock and boathouse at Tubby Hook, at the foot of Dyckman Street for his 277-foot turbine steam yacht Vanadis that arrived from Scotland in June of 1908. Although 14 other vessels in the New York Yacht Club fleet were larger, the Vanadis boasted two fireplaces and the only electric elevator. The NY Times, with uncharacteristic redundancy, described her as a “palatial floating palace”.

One hundred years ago many trotting horse owners raced their own steeds and Billings was no exception. A nationally recognized equestrian, he was a teetotaler, abstemious in an era when gluttony was the norm, and kept an athletic figure well into middle age. He prided himself in racing his horses without a whip, using just the reins to control them. The trophy room in the new stable was filled with ribbons and trophy cups won by Billings and his horses. One of his favorite pastimes was driving his coach-and-four along the newly paved Riverside Drive along the Hudson below his estate and one day he decided that it would be grand to be able to drive his four-in-hand up to the stable 100 feet above the road. The only requirement would be routing a driveway up that steep hillside. His neighbor came up with an idea-start one of the family milk cows at the bottom and follow her up to the barn, tracing her route along the slope. The cow’s navigational skills were as expected and the 1600-foot double-switchback drive was built along the track of her path. He proceeded to hire the architects Buchman&Fox to design this extravagant entry to his estate. They laid out the roadway and proposed a great arched stone gallery to carry the top section. Most of the stone was quarried right on the site. The surface of the roadway was paved with chamfered bricks to give the horses better footing on the 6% grade. The NY Times included a picture of an elaborate model of the project in an article that also announced that the total cost of Billings’ new driveway was $250,000-an enormous sum in 1913 dollars. He was a stranger to frugality.

There was a reason that he chose to build in this then remote section of Manhattan and the reason was proximity to a superb new racetrack, the Harlem River Speedway-a magnificent two and a half mile long dirt track built along the Harlem River, from the Polo Grounds at 155th Street to Swindler Cove at Dyckman Street. The Speedway was a favorite of all of the horsemen in the city and was built and maintained at taxpayer expense. How it happened to be built is an instructive tale of the politics of that era.

By the early 1890’s trotting horses, the Lamborghinis of their time, were the shared passion of New York’s plutocrats. They often raced along St Nicholas Avenue in Harlem until the area began to be developed for housing after the arrival of the elevated railway in 1879. In 1891 the city’s Tammany Hall Mayor, Hugh Grant (also owner of a string of racehorses) quietly planned a two-mile track along the western edge of Central Park. Tammany’s notorious politico George Washington Plunkett (“I seen my chances and I took ‘em”) guided a funding bill through the state legislature and got the governor to sign it. In March of 1892 surveyors and engineers began staking out the new raceway along the western wall of the park, marking all of the trees to be felled for the right-of-way. At this point secrecy had vanished and an infuriated public arose in anger to defend their beloved park. Led by the New York Times, the protestors pointed out that of the city’s horse population of 66,000 there were no more that 2000 racehorses and this proposed track would only benefit the city’s 250 trotting horse owners. The Park Commissioners, finally yielding to intense public pressure, voted to rescind permission to build the track in the park. Next it was proposed to build a track along the Harlem River on the sparsely populated north end of Manhattan. Nobody objected. Public funds were appropriated and $7,000,000 later a splendid new raceway took form along the banks of the Harlem. With wide sidewalks for spectators on both sides of the 95-foot wide dirt track, the Harlem River Speedway opened in July of 1895. Each Sunday portly middle-aged moneybags delighted in showing off their driving skills and horseflesh before large crowds of the less well off. CKG Billings was one of the most admired of these sportsmen and none seemed concerned that the public had paid for the construction and maintenance of the track. Later, early automobiles were banned and were reluctantly permitted in 1919. By 1922 the victorious auto had vanquished the racehorse and the speedway was paved with concrete.

By 1916 Billings had tired of his toys and sold the whole operation to John D Rockefeller Jr for $35,000 per acre. Initially Rockefeller intended to tear down Tryon Hall and give the land to the city to the city for a new park. Inwood and Washington Heights were awash in new apartment houses and a park in the neighborhood was badly needed. Architects protested destruction of the house and the city turned down the offer of a new park, so the house was rented a drug manufacturer named Partos and the sculptor George Grey Barnard took over the stable as his studio.

Barnard had worked in France until war broke out in 1914. While carving a group of heroic-scale figures for the Pennsylvania state house he supported his family by collecting Gothic sculpture and architectural fragments from local farmers and selling them to rich American tourists. When he returned to New York he brought along tons of these stone carvings and eventually built a large brick barn to house them just outside the gates to the Billings estate. To raise funds for military hospitals near the battlefront in France he opened his Medieval display on weekends for the public and called it The Cloisters. An early visitor was his new neighbor, John D Rockefeller Jr, whose passion was medieval architecture. Eventually Rockefeller bought Barnard’s collection, gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and funded construction of a new Cloisters atop the old estate. Tryon Hall burned in a spectacular fire in 1926 and the city finally accepted Rockefeller’s gift of the new 67-acre Fort Tryon Park, which opened in 1935. Today its centerpiece is Rockefeller’s superb gift to New York, the magnificent neo-gothic Cloisters museum, the Metropolitan Museum’s only branch, housing George Grey Barnard’s architectural artifacts and much of the museum’s Medieval collection, including another Rockefeller gift, the fabulous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.

Billings eventually moved to Santa Barbara, California where he died in 1937. Sherry’s went out of business along with its Fifth Avenue rival, Delmonico’s in 1919, both victims of Prohibition. Robert Moses turned the old speedway into the Harlem River Drive in 1940. All that remains today of the estate is the old gatehouse near the park entrance and, of course, the famous driveway. Its accessible (on foot) from the Heather Gardens in Fort Tryon park and well worth a visit.

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