We’ve seen photos documenting the splendor of old Northern Manhattan. Breath-taking mansions of a grander time, now gone except for a forgotten arch or lost driveway meandering around a city park. That these architectural wonders were photographed at all is remarkable.
But to step inside one of these homes, to see the art, the table settings, the beds in which these Captains of Industry slept….Well, for that you would need a time machine.
Luckily, a publishing fad erupted among the rich and famous near the turn of the century in which the millionaire set showcased their wealth in thick, expensive, leather-bound volumes printed in limited, private runs. Cornelius Vanderbilt himself commissioned a twelve volume set documenting his physical wealth. “These volumes were presented to his admiring friends at first, though I think, in later years this distinction was reserved for his enemies.” (Valentine’s Manual, 1928)
Such was the case with the private realm of Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings who in 1910 commissioned just such a book allowing a privileged few to inspect his inner sanctum.
Above slide-show of Billings’ home from privately published book.
Beginning in the 1901, the forty year old President of the People’s Gas, Light and Coke Company of Chicago retired, pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan where he would shower New Yorkers with his eccentricity for years to come.
Indulging in yachts and, perhaps most importantly for this story, fast horses, Billings followed the recently opened Harlem River Speedway uptown and quickly fell in love with Manhattan’s northern edge.
He soon set to work on a 25,000 square foot lodge and stables, in what is now Fort Tryon Park, for entertaining guests.
In 1903, his lodge complete, Billings ordered an indoor, full-service, horseback dinner catered by the then famous Sherry’s Restaurant. By popular demand Billings relocated the dinner to Sherry’s midtown ballroom where 36 guests sat atop living, breathing, whinnying horses while waiters dressed as grooms catered to their every whim.
More at ease in Fort Tryon than his 53rd Street home, Billings had architect Guy Lowell build him a proper French-style mansion accessed by an S-shaped driveway that snaked up the bluff looking over the Hudson River.
In 1916, Billings sold his beloved estate to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who planned on destroying the home before donating the land to the City for the creation of Fort Tyron Park. The home was spared the wrecking ball after loud local protest. But like so many monuments to old New York, the home was leveled by a 1926 fire so great the Times reported, it “spouted fire and smoke like a volcano.”
This article on the Billings’ estate would not have been possible without the help, generosity and even encouragement of Inwood enthusiast Don Rice. The book, likely one of only a handful in existence, comes from Don’s private collection. Don, thank you again for sharing this book with me, and, now, the public.