Thursday, February 13, 2014

The 1901 Durland's Riding Academy 7 West 66th Street

The riding ring was in the then-main section (at left).   Little architectural detailing remains to hint at its former grandeur.  photo by Alice Lum

In the second half of the 19th century Central Park was, as it is now, a bucolic escape for New Yorkers.  Carriage rides along the drives, strolls through the Rambles and light refreshments in the pavilions made the Park a popular destination.  For others, the bridle paths provided an afternoon of horse riding away from the routine of everyday life.

To accommodate these day-trip equestrians Riding Stables and Riding Academies cropped up; most along the periphery of the Park’s western edge.  Among the most elegant was Durland’s Riding Academy on Columbus Circle.  Here, as their mounts were readied, ladies waited in well-appointed rooms with dainty furniture and men lounged on leather-tufted club chairs beneath handsome brass chandeliers. 

In 1900 the old Durland's Riding Academy on Columbus Circle was deemed "unsafe." Note the stone horse trough with the sculptured horse on top.-- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

But at the turn of the century, 13 years after opening, the building was deemed unsafe.  Durland’s Riding Academy laid plans for a new, even more impressive structure.  In 1895 the Academy had already considered a new building and bought land on Central Park West between 66th and 67th Streets and began work on an impressive complex that would stretch 150 feet along Central Park West.  But trouble ensued.  “Work was started, but little progress had been made when foreclosure proceedings were commenced and the property was bought by …the American Loan and Deposit Co.,” reported the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide.

By now a 7-story apartment house was being build on the Central Park frontage; but the real estate directly behind it was still available.  On January 6, 1900 the Record and Guide reported “Plans were filed this week by Henry F. Kilburn for a 2 and 5-story riding academy and stable to be built on the north side of 66th st., 100 feet west of Central Park West and running through to 67th st.”

The estimated cost of the ambitious complex was $200,000—more than $5 million today.  The scope of the project was such that the Guide noted “It is reported that the building of the academy will result in opening an entrance to the park at 66th st.”

The riding ring was housed in the central section behind soaring three-story tall windows -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

The new Academy building was opened in March 1901.  Kilburn’s brick and stone complex was impressive, despite tepid architectural reviews.  The central pavilion, slightly lower than the flanking sections, housed an enormous riding ring under a great span of roof supported on giant trusses.  Three-story tall arched windows flooded the ring with sunlight on clear days.  Viewing galleries accommodated 600 spectators and a separate musicians’ gallery could hold an entire 40-piece orchestra.  This was necessary for Durland’s popular afternoon “music rides.”

There were elegant club rooms for the Riding Club, formed in 1881 and listing among its members some of New York City’s wealthiest citizens. The group changed its name in 1885 from the somewhat snootier “the Gentlemen’s Riding Club.”  There was also leased space for boarding private horses and carriages.  And, of course, saddle horses could be hired for an afternoon in the Park.  William Durland also sold horses; either as a side business or because the animals had passed their prime.  On January 12, 1902 he advertised in The Sun for “Saddle Horses for Sale—Conformation, Action, Style.”

Equestrians gather outside the newly-completed structure -- photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Christmas ride, a long-standing annual tradition, was continued in its new headquarters.  But in December 1902 Durland instituted a new twist—the lavish spectacle of riding actors and actresses in an equestrian show was enlivened by a variation of pony polo.

The Sun reported on December 31, “Santa Claus brought a new game to town last night and it furnished sport and excitement to the crowded house at the fifteenth annual Christmas ride of the Durland Riding Academy.  It was pushball, played on pony-back by eight nimble youths.” 

In addition to the game, the newspaper described a slight hitch in the spectacular production .  “An evolution ride to music, in which seventy women and men were the actors, opened the evening’s show.  It was commanded by Charles T. Krauss and at the end the equestriennes in the class were presented with souvenirs by a Santa Claus, who came straight from Toyland on a float representing a Nuremberg cottage.  His horses bore jingling bells and were harnessed in white fur.  Santa Claus wore a red coat which had the effect on the horses of a red rag to a bull, so it was all the women could do to get their nags close enough to old St. Nick to enable them to take the gifts from his hands.  But the act was a great success and a good starter for the night’s amusements.”

Another annual event held at Durland’s was the Spring Horse Show.  A benefit affair, it was patronized by Manhattan’s elite.  In 1918 the show was to benefit the American Red Star Animal Relief and among those taking boxes were Mrs. Orme Wilson (daughter of Caroline Astor), Mrs. Frederick W. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Morton F. Plant, Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, Cornelius K. G. Billings and Clarence H. Mackay.

On March 30, 1925 Durland’s Riding Academy hosted a celebrity—Tony, the horse of Western movie star Tom Mix.  “Rare is the individual who receives such immediate and wholehearted attention upon his arrival in New York as did Tony when he came into Pennsylvania Station yesterday afternoon from his home in California,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “Followed by throngs of his admirers Tony crossed the floor to the taxi entrance and took a ten-ton taxi-van up to his lodgings in Durand’s [sic] Riding Academy, on Sixty-sixth Street.”

Although William Durland retired two years after Tony spent the night; Durland’s Academy continued.  The Riding Club disbanded in 1936, causing The New York Times to sigh “Old-timers of the boots and saddle era of a generation ago paused a bit wistfully yesterday at the doors of the Riding Club in West Sixty-sixth Street to watch an occasional horseman emerge for a canter in Central Park…They had just been notified that the club, on whose roster once were such names as J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, August Belmont, John Jacob Astor, Thomas Fortune Ryan and several of the Vanderbilts, would close on May 1.”

But another club, the Riding and Polo Club, continued.  In reporting on the club’s two-day horse show on December 30, 1936 The New York Times noted the large attendance “in the arena of that organization at 7 West Sixty-sixth Street before a crowd of enthusiasts that packed the galleries and the reserved balconies.”

Interestingly, the riding ring was the scene not only of horse shows; but at times it hosted the annual New York Hound Show.  On Friday, January 31, 1941 “this colorful canine affair,” as described by The Times, was held here.  A total of 269 dogs competed for ribbons that year. 

But the days of Durland’s imposing equestrian complex were drawing quickly to a close.   As The Times had noted a few years earlier, the last link had already been broken “between a brilliant sporting era of a half-century ago and the new automotive age.”

In 1949, somewhat surprisingly, the American Broadcasting Company purchased the building and converted it to television studio space.  From here live shows were broadcast to the living rooms of viewers nationwide.  Among the most memorable and historic was the split-screen live Presidential Debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon on October 13, 1960.

The set in the New York studio was carefully replicated and shipped to Los Angeles, where Nixon would speak.  John Kennedy debated the Vice President from the ABC studio on 66th Street.  The first such televised event, the Kennedy-Nixon debate broke ground in political campaigning and went down in history as one of the major factors in Nixon’s loss.

The 1960s were years of unrest, protest and civil disobedience and these all came knocking on the door of the American Broadcasting Company on June 5, 1961.  Students were outraged by a Paramount theater in Austin, Texas that refused to abolish its policy of racial segregation.  Leonard Goldenson, president of the American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc., operated from his office in the former Durland Academy.

Four students entered Goldenson’s outer office that June morning demanding that he order the Austin theater to reform its policy.  “When he did not, they decided to spend the night in his reception room,” reported The Times.  “There was nothing that [he] could do about removing them, short of having them arrested.  This he refused to do, and so from 10:15 A.M., when they entered the American Broadcasting Company offices at 7 West Sixty-sixth Street, they sat quietly but determinedly on a sofa reading books.”

The sit-in, a favorite means of non-violent protest at the time, posed a problem for ABC and its affiliated Paramount company.  “They were quiet and orderly, and there was never any need for the police and detectives on hand to reprimand them,” reported the newspaper.  Having the students physically removed would result in bad press and the appearance of bullying.  Instead the firm simply made things as uncomfortable as possible.  “The four inside the building were never permitted to telephone their parents, nor were newsmen and television reporters permitted to interview them until 7:45 P.M.”

In the meantime, a group formed outside, “all of them white and most members of the Young People’s Socialist League,” which demonstrated by walking in circles and carrying placards that read “The Paramount Issue is Democracy” and “Movies May be Make-Believe, But Paramount Segregation Is a Real Thing.”

The demonstrators never did see Goldenson, whose company owned the Paramount theaters as well as ABC-TV.  An official tried to explain that “all of the company’s theatres, including those located in the South, are and have always been operated on an autonomous basis by local subsidiaries” and individual theater policies could not be controlled by Goldenson; the demonstrators were not convinced.

“The ABC-Paramount statement is a disgraceful attempt to give us the run around,” said a statement, “you’re the president and the buck has got to stop at your desk.”

Three years later Marlene Sanders would get her start with ABC.  In her Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News she remarked on the old academy building.  “Even the modest building on Sixty-sixth Street looked impressive to me, fresh from a local station.  The news department, appropriate to its status at the time, was in the basement.  Almost everything was in one long room:  the assignment desk, the correspondents—all four of us—and our typewriters, desks, and chairs.”

In the 1970s ABC had the façade slathered in a pink-colored stucco.  Then years later, as ABC expanded its 66th Street operation, it demolished the western section of the old Riding Academy.  But in 1998 ABC began a renovation project that included removing the stucco, replicating the cornice in fiberglass, and cleaning and repairing the brownstone and brick.
The elegant columned portico, the three-story bay windows, the elaborate cornice and arched upper windows are all gone.  photo by Alice Lum

Henry Kilburn’s striking Durland’s Academy complex is barely recognizable today.  The three-story arched windows of the riding ring have been bricked up and the soaring space inside floored over.  But the fact that the building—or most of it—survives is remarkable.  Within its walls Vanderbilts and Belmonts saddled their steeds and John F. Kennedy took his first step into history.

many thanks to reader Carolyn Muzzey for suggesting this post

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful piece regarding NYC's equestrian history.

    "In the second half of the 19th century Central Park was, as it is now, a bucolic escape for New Yorkers. Carriage rides along the drives, strolls through the Rambles and light refreshments in the pavilions made the Park a popular destination. For others, the bridle paths provided an afternoon of horse riding away from the routine of everyday life."

    - This still holds true today! The bridle paths in Central Park are still precious, as is the modern NYC horse & carriage business. Long may they stay!

    Thank you - Alison Clarke, SE Regional Director, NYS Horse Council