Monday, October 21, 2013

The Lost Billings Mansion -- "Tryon Hall"

Three years after marrying Margaret Cochran in 1772, Philadelphian John Corbin joined the militia.  1775 was the year of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  That year the intrepid Margaret Cochran Corbin followed the troops and her husband.  She cooked for the soldiers, did their laundry, and aided the sick and wounded.

The Battle of Fort Washington erupted on the cliffs above the Hudson River on November 16, 1776.  A “matross,” Corbin was responsible for loading a cannon while his partner fired it.  When Corbin’s partner was killed, he took over the firing while Margaret loaded.  Then Corbin, too, was killed.

Margaret Corbin took over the cannon, loading and firing it throughout the skirmish.  The British won the Battle of Fort Washington; but it was Margaret’s cannon that was reportedly the last to stop firing.   The heroic woman was taken off the battlefield with severe injuries to her jaw and chest and a nearly-severed left arm.   After her recovery she joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point.

A century and a quarter following the battle the land overlooking the Hudson River and the New Jersey palisades on the opposite bank was still largely undeveloped.   Riverside Drive was still being graded and carved into the landscape.  It snaked below the battlefield site which would soon catch the eye of Chicago industrialist and horse enthusiast Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings. 

At 40 years old, Billings stepped down as president of the People’s Gas Light & Code Company in 1901.  He relocated to New York City, living in a mansion on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street, and joined other millionaires engaged in trotter racing at the Speedway in upper Manhattan.  The racetrack had been established just three years earlier.    Billings purchased the land in Washington Heights above the cliff, conveniently close to the Speedway, for a stable and lodge.

The New York Times, on September 15, 1901, said that he would “erect there a residence, which, with its surroundings, promises to rival anything of its kind in the city.”  The newspaper said “Mr. Billings will build a mansion, and...a large stable, affording accommodations for sixty horses.”  A feature of the house would be “an observatory from which an unobstructed view in every direction will be afforded.”

The millionaire commissioned architect Guy Lowell to design his getaway—a 25,000 square foot edifice that coupled a handsome stables and exercise grounds for his thoroughbreds with a lavish casino for entertainment.  The country lodge which The Times had described was constructed separately nearby atop the cliff.

The expansive stables included a 'casino' for entertaining -- photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Construction was completed in 1903 and, to celebrate, Billings planned a dinner in the stables building catered by the fashionable Sherry’s restaurant—the caterer of choice of New York’s wealthiest families.   But news of the affair, on which the high-toned guests were to be seated on wooden hobby horses, got out and Billings had to quickly change plans.

On March 29, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported “C. K. G. Billings, who was to give a hobby horse dinner at his stable at Washington Heights last night, abandoned the plan on account of the publicity which it received, and instead took his guests to Sherry’s.  Many curious persons, who were waiting at Washington Heights to see the widely-talked of feast were disappointed, for Mr. Billings and his guests were dining down town.”

What the newspaper failed to mention was that the Billings dinner was even more outlandish than was originally planned.   Painted backdrops of country scenes hid the French paneling of Sherry’s private dining room and the floor was strewn with hay.  The waiters donned the uniforms of grooms, and Billings’ millionaire guests in white ties and tails sat upon live horses around the table.

Millionaires in evening dress sit astride expensive steeds at Billings' unusual dinner party at Sherry's in March 1903 -- photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Romanced by the awe-inspiring location, Billings called back Lowell to enlarge the lodge into a year-round residence.   The project would go on for years with landscape architect Charles Downing Lay working on the grounds while the mansion was constructed.

The completed mansion in 1913 -- photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Finally, in 1907, the complex of buildings was completed.   The Sun said of the estate “The Billings place is the finest along the upper drive.  Mr. Billings is constantly adding to the attractiveness of his place, which has already cost him well on to the million dollar mark.  It is called Fort Tryon Hall, because it rests on the site of the famous revolutionary fort.”  The fort had been named for British Major General Sir William Tyron, the last British governor of colonial New York.

Another view of the house shows the "observatory" tower -- photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The New-York Tribune described the entertainment structures on the estate “at the extreme upper end of Manhattan Island, where city and country may be said to meet.”  The newspaper said that the “bathing pool” was “part of a building which is really a ‘casino,’ devoted to games and sports of various kinds.  A squash court occupies part of the building, and elsewhere is a bowling alley, but the swimming pool is by far the most interesting detail of the building and is notable by reason of its unusual size.”

The newspaper noted that “the ceiling is of glass, and at one end is built a deep alcove which contains a fireplace where huge logs are burned and where bathers may warm themselves before a crackling fire.  Various trophies adorn the walls, and at the deep end of the pool a springboard makes diving possible.”

photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The mansion itself was a massive Louis XIV-style chateau built around a central courtyard.   The New-York Tribune said that around the courtyard were “galleries, from which the dwellers might look down upon a fountain and a garden of brilliant flowers.”  In the mansion Billings, his wife and two children, were waited upon by a staff of nearly two dozen.   

From the observatory the Statue of Liberty could be seen.  photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1909, in honor of the Hudson Fulton Celebration, the retired millionaire paid for a stele on the property—a monument to the Corbins and the battle that took place on the site.

A year after the house was completed, so was Riverside Drive.  But the steep cliff on which the mansion sat made construction of a viable roadway to the Drive an engineering impossibility—or so it seemed.  The west end of the property was 100 nearly vertical feet above the Drive.

Yet on August 10, 1913 The Sun reported that “It is costing C. K. G. Billings more than $250,000 to realize an ambition that he has had for several years.  Mr. Billings built some years ago a fine residence on the site of old Fort Tryon, overlooking Riverside Drive at 192d street…He wanted a driveway to Riverside Drive, but because of the obstacles that nature placed there the idea was given up as being impossible of accomplishment.”

But Cornelius Billings was unaccustomed to having impossibility get in his way.  “Turning off with his automobile at 181st street did not suit him, for it is north of the point that the Drive is the best.”  Billings consulted with architects Buchman & Fox who surveyed the property.  The Sun said “It was intimated that the improvement would cost a lot of money, but Mr. Billings let it be known in his own way that money was not to stand in the way.”

The problem, of course, was how to engineer and design a roadway up the steep incline.  Billings told the architects that “he wanted a grade that would permit him to drive his automobile and fast horses over it with safety.”

The architects turned to military engineering to solve the problem.  Japanese commander General Nogi had reached the Russian defenses at Port Arthur by constructing z-shaped trenches.  “Instead of zigzag trenches Mr. Fox planned to get to the top of Tryon Hill by building the road in the form of the letter S with great sweeping curves at either ends.”

One hundred laborers worked on the year-long project, cutting into the solid bedrock and using massive derricks.  The granite removed from the cliff side was used to construct the “Roman” retaining wall and arched viaduct that quickly became a landmark for Riverside Drive motorists.  “At the lower end a balustrade on top of the viaduct is 53 feet above the road,” said The Sun. “At the north end the arch is not so high as the road is going up all the time.  This archway is 160 feet long and is built of finished granite and stone taken from the Fort Tryon hill.”

A postcard captured Riverside Drive snaking below Billings' "Roman Roadway."

Inside the viaduct were blind arches built into the retaining wall “to hold statuary if Mr. Billings should wish so.”  The sweeping S curve was so gentle that a grade of less than 6 percent was achieved.  A balustrade of granite lined the roadway and electric lights illuminated the “Roman viaduct” at night.

At the bottom and the top of the roadway were great gates, 20 feet high and ten feet wide that swung from 16-foot high granite pillars.   The columns were capped by bronze lamps.  The cost of the upper gates alone was $3,000—about $50,000 today.

The massive upper gates with their bronze lamps cost Billings $50,000 in today's dollars -- photograph by Charles Bayer, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York VPage&VBID-24UAYWRF60HY&SMLS=1&RW1280&RH=915
By now the cost of the estate had ballooned to about $2 million.   The Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahoma, told its readers on January 16, 1917 that “the Billings house has for years been one of the show places on Manhattan Island.  It is virtually a country estate in the city, being surrounded by spacious grounds beautifully laid out and commanding unusually wide vies of river and hill scenery.”

On the hillside above the lower entrance gates is the monument Billings erected to the Corbins and the Battle of Fort Washington -- photograph by Charles Bayer, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York VPage&VBID-24UAYWRF60HY&SMLS=1&RW1280&RH=915
Billings had other homes, as well.  He owned an extensive estate “Farnsworth, near Oyster Bay, Long Island; the several hundred-acre Curl’s Neck Farm on the James River in Virginia; a summer home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and an estate at Colorado Springs.  By the time the Daily Ardmoreite wrote of Fort Tryon Hall, Billings was ready to move on.

He moved his family into a 21-room apartment on Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street, paying $20,000 a year rent (around $25,000 a month today). 

On January 4, 1917 the New-York Tribune reported that “C. K. G. Billings has sold Tryon Hall, his magnificent home at Fort Washington Avenue and upper Riverside Drive.  The name of the purchaser or the price has not been announced.”  

That purchaser would become known a few days later when John D. Rockefeller, Jr., announced his plan to give the estate to the city as a park.   His $10 million vision included the purchase of two abutting estates; as well as the purchase and preservation as parkland the palisades along the opposite cliffs in New Jersey, to ensure that the views would not be defaced.  

As for the Billings mansion, The Sun was confident that it would survive.  “It is possible that Mr. Rockefeller’s plans will not affect very much the architectural treatment of the Tryon Hall property.  Mr. Billings had employed some of the most prominent landscape architects in the country to work on the estate and it is the opinion that there are few estates better laid out or prettier than the Billings property.”

Rockefeller, however, had other thoughts.  When his plans to demolish the mansion came to light, he was met with unusual resistance.  “Though the original plan included the demolition of Tryon Hall, protests from architects who wished the building’s fine French architecture kept intact have stayed the immediate carrying out of the plan,” reported The New York Times on January 7, 1917.  “While one proposal to utilize the hall as the official residence of the Mayor was laughed down, it was declared last night that the building might eventually be used as a museum for the preservation of relics associated with the history of the city and State.”

Rockefeller relented; then as the nation entered World War I, he temporarily turned the mansion over to the United States Government.  The Sun reported on May 12, 1918 that it was placed “at the disposal of the Government for use during the war, presumably for a hospital, and that Mr. Rockefeller stood ready to spend $500,000 in hospital alterations.”

The patriotic plan did come to pass and with the park still in the planning stages, the mansion was rented to Nicolas C. Partos for the summer season of 1918.  Partos was head of the Partola Manufacturing Company which made “candied medicine.”  His lease extended from May 1 to October 1 and the $25,000 rent included the stables, garage, “other outbuildings, and the swimming pool,” according to The Times.

photographer unknown.  From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

The city dragged its feet and Rockefeller’s dream of an expansive park to the city sat in limbo.  Partos’ three-month lease was extended for years—ending on the afternoon of March 7, 1926.  Around 3:00 that day a boy noticed smoke pouring from the roof.  Inside Mrs. Partos and daughter Irene were both in bed on the third floor with pneumonia.  Dr. Henry W. Berg was there attending to his patients.

Dr. Berg helped Nicholas Partos and a few of the seven servants in the house carry the sick woman and girl downstairs.  They were put in a limousine to be taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital.  Before the limo left the property fire equipment had arrived; but by now the smoke had erupted into a full-blown blaze.

Cornelius Billings had had an elaborate self-contained fire-fighting system installed on the grounds.  But according to The New York Times the following day, “it broke down at the first trial.”   City fire hydrants were 200 feet from the house and, because the mansion was 250 above sea level, the water pressure was weak.  Pumping engines were called for and, in the meantime, the house continued burning out of control.

The Times reported “Part of the house was a museum of art works.  Mr. Partos owned paintings attributed to Rembrandt and Hals, two Corots, and two valuable tapestries of the Louis XIV period, among other things.”

While Partos hurried to the hospital to be with his wife and daughter; more than 200 firemen arrived at the conflagration, along with more than 50 pieces of apparatus.  Thirty streams of water were focused on the blaze, but the fire continued well into the night.

The quality of construction, ironically, added to the problem.  “Scores of men were put to work with axes chopping through floors and walls in order to get at the concealed flames which prevented more than temporary victories in any part of the building.  The axes were turned aside by wire of thick mesh which reinforced stucco and plaster.”

As night fell the eastern turret crashed into the building “which spouted fire and smoke like a volcano.”  The Times described the scene as parts of the mansion collapsed.  “As night was setting in a section of the roof fell, filling the sky with a broad field of sparks.  For a time torrents of red rushed upward against the darkened sky.”

Earlier in the afternoon onlookers noticed the Partos’ pet German Shepherd at a window, trapped on the second floor.  “It stood up at the window and looked out, estimating the distance of the jump to the flower bed below,” said The Times.  “Then it turned around and resurveyed the situation inside the house.  Efforts to escape through the interior singed the dog’s coat and sent it back to the window.”

The fire fighters sprayed the window opening with water, soaking the dog and buying it time.  Suddenly, “without further study, it leaped through the window, rolled over and over among the flower beds and then limped away.”

The dog was luckier than the Partos collections.  “Besides the art objects, much valuable jewelry was reported to have been left behind in the buildings,” said The Times.  “The total loss [of artwork] was estimated last night in the neighborhood of $1,000,000.”

The magnificent Tryon Hall, described by The Times as “a huge rambling chateau with towers and turrets, conical steeples, oriel windows and great expanses of steep shingled roof” was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble.

It was not until 1927 that Rockefeller was finally able to start work on his 67-acre Fort Tryon Park.  He brought in Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the co-designer of Central Park, who spent four years transforming the rocky terrain into a manicured landscape.   Eight decades later the last surviving remnants of Tryon Hall are the Billings gatehouse, the elegant entrance pillars and the wonderful Roman roadway.
many thanks to Alan Engler for suggesting this post


  1. This was in Manhattan? An amazing place for sure.

  2. What incredible topography and location for an estate and in New York City to boot!

  3. Even though I researched Billings for a piece on his dinner on horseback (found the menu in a Sherry's archive) I learned more here. That picture has fascinated me since I was a teen and Billings was quite a character. I read about the fire in a NYT piece of the period... how sad that it was destroyed.
    Great piece. Love the photos.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Billings was, indeed, a character and had the unlimited funds to do whatever he wanted. Other than his famous horse dinner, he like so many multimillionaires of the last century has fallen into obscurity. The general public tends to know only the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Carnegies and the like.

  4. Hello living actually in France ( Thonon les Bains in Haute Savoie )I've lived in Washington Heights from 1951 till 1967 with my parents when I was three years old. They gave birth to my sister Cathy .
    We immigrated to the US and travelled by ocean Liner "DE GRASSE FRENCH LINE" My grandfarther established a textile industry in 1938. My folks returned to Europe- All this to tell you that we all had a nostalgia of the years we have lived in New York near the Castle Village. I was greatly pleased to discover about my neighborhood and hope to see one day a book published about the area ( including the billings estate). Congratulations to the work and attention you've given to put back into memory something which will still draw attention to many others. Respectfully yours Denis and Cathy Morins

  5. there is newsreel footage of the fire here:

    1. Thank you so much for posting this. A family member died fighting the fire and this documentation is of great value to us.

  6. Does the guest list for the horseback-mounted banquet exist? Particularly interested if Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick or Charles Schwab attended.