“And then there are the hollows and hills, depressions and rises, nooks and corners, open level places when possible, fascinating curves and unexpected depressions everywhere; planted where it has been possible to plant them; decorated with shrubbery and flowering plants where they will grow to their own best advantage and to the beauty of the grounds. Just what is needed has been done, and the start once made, nature and constant care may be depended upon to do the rest.” –Farr Berre, from Tryon Hall
Only later, many years after they’d procured the northern extant of Riverside Drive for Robert Moses’ Henry Hudson Parkway and erected the soaring steel towers of the George Washington Bridge over Jeffrey’s Hook, would the spirit of C.K.G. Billings’ pleasure rides along the Hudson River be forgotten. Turning onto Riverside Drive off of West 72nd St., he would have marveled at the lavish French Chateau of Charles Schwab, an entire city block manifest in the character a Steel magnate who died bankrupt. Continuing up the drive, which by the end of the 19th century had failed to emerge as the next ‘Fifth Avenue’ as many had once hoped it would, Billings would gaze over Olmsted’s Riverside Park and out onto the sparkling Hudson, alive with steamships cruising towards the piers running all along the West Side shore. Past the campus of Columbia University and the fine marble edifice of Grant’s Tomb, he’d toss his straw boater cap onto the passenger seat and revel in the curves and undulations of upper Riverside Drive. Here, he might have glanced at the onetime country villas of Northern Manhattan clustered below newer apartment buildings, townhouses, and tenements, developments bound to overtake these fine vistas. Past the colonnaded Grecian Temple, the road would bend slightly to the east near the Libbey Castle and Billings would brace his forty-horsepower CGV for the steep drive up ahead. Facing the immense granite gallery he’d built only a few years previous, he’d ride through the handsome marble gates and feel the shadowed sunset against his face, gunning his engine as he sped through the lofty vaulted driveway and round the red brick roadway to his estate. Today, standing in hushed solitude beneath that vaulted granite canopy, most fail to notice the shade of him in his automobile racing up the drive.
In the annals of history, Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings is not remembered as a titan of Industry. Despite his tremendous fortune, his name does not stand beside the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and other turn of the century industrial tycoons. In his 1937 obituary, he is mostly remembered as a “noted sportsman,” the owner of several champion horses, including Lou Dillon, Uhlan, and the Harvester. In 1901, after retiring as president of the People’s Gas Light and Coke Company, a company he’d inherited from his father, Billings moved from Chicago to New York and settled into an apartment on Fifth Avenue. An enthusiastic breeder of horses, later that year he purchased a large tract of land for a stable near the Harlem River Speedway, on the site of the old Revolutionary War Fort Tryon, famous for Margaret Corbin’s heroic defense beside her husband against an onslaught of 4,000 Hessian troops. (The circle at the entrance to today’s Fort Tryon Park bears her name.) Ever fond of his handsome stable grounds, Billings erected a lookout tower to take advantage of the site’s impressive views, then soon after determined that the site would make a fine place for an estate. Constructed in Louis XIV style, his mansion boasted a multi-story indoor patio, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, and a squash court, complemented by tastefully manicured grounds. A medley of architectural flourishes rendered in gaudy fashion, the Billings home epitomized the country estate. The property, on a high ridge facing south towards the Libbey Castle, once home to Boss Tweed, William A.T. Stewart, and Daniel Butterfield, stood in contrast to the rapidly developing landscape below. In many ways, it seemed more suited for the banks of Oyster Bay than the upper reaches of Manhattan. Still, while the surrounding city was increasingly built up during his stay, and Billings himself did own an Oyster Bay mansion as well as properties in Virginia, Colorado Springs, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Fifth Avenue and elsewhere, his home, secluded on the wooded cliffs of the old Fort Tryon site, afforded him all the amity and splendor of country living.
Billings, however, remained unsettled over one particular of his fine estate on the Heights—its inaccessibility from Riverside Drive. Increasingly infatuated with the automobile, Billings quickly culled some of his attention away from his “trotters” to relish in the speed of the newfangled machine. The newspapers reported that while he owned seven fewer cars than J.J. Astor, a mere thirteen, he spent more on them per year than any other New Yorker. In 1907, at an auto show in Stanford White’s old Madison Square Garden, Billings purchased an electric racing car on a whim after seeing the exhibition. Still, despite a newly paved Riverside Drive, he could only access Tryon Hall except from Fort Washington Road, one hundred feet above the scenic drive. And so, in 1913, Billings commissioned architectural firm Buchman and Fox to design him a $250,000 (equivalent $4 million today) driveway that would enable him to reach his home directly from Riverside Drive. Due to the precipitous ridge running from his property down one hundred feet below, the architect designed a unique zig-zag driveway supported by an enormous “gallery” of Maine granite. The announcement in the New York Times read “$250,000 Driveway to Satisfy a Whim” and was complemented by a photograph of the model for the grand driveway, resembling in miniature the Athens Acropolis.
In 1917, C.K.G. Billings sold his estate to John D. Rockefeller, who planned to offer the grounds, along with several smaller properties, to the city as a new park. He left New York not longer after, eventually settling in Santa Barbara, CA. In 1926, before the construction of Fort Tryon Park, the Billing’s mansion burned and eventually was torn down. As for Billings himself, he largely faded from public view before the dawn of the twenties, and generally only found himself in the papers in pieces relating to his famous steeds. He died in Santa Barbara in 1937.
Strange and forlorn now, waiting for the green of fat vines to devour it back into nature’s bosom, the massive granite gallery of Tryon Hall stands like a ruined citadel on the roads emanating from Rome. At its base, a beaten path of tar runs along where copious weeds have risen to shield the twin stone gates from passing cars and been littered with torn refuse. Here, where no one walks anymore, on a plateau high above the Hudson and far below the cliffs of Fort Tryon, one can gaze upon the great tombstone of excess, the last remnant of C.K.G. Billings, the forgotten capitalist.