In the 1890’s the Harlem River Speedway, currently the Harlem River Drive, became the private playground of New York’s elite. On this taxpayer funded stretch of road, the fabulously wealthy of a bygone era raced horses away from the “riff-raff” of the newly bustling metropolis.
One turn of the century playboy, C.K.G. Billings, even designed a Wizard of Oz like estate complete with a 25,000 square foot stable, so he and his champion trotters could be close to the action on the Speedway.
As with most spectator sports, the uptown racing scene was as much about socializing as the races themselves. And for twelve glorious years, that social scene was based in Inwood’s Seaman mansion, which was leased by the now legendary Suburban Riding and Driving Club for use as the club’s headquarters.
The Seaman mansion, once located in today’s Park Terrace Gardens, had seen its share of characters through the years and the members of the Suburban Riding and Driving Club included a who’s who list of New York families whose names are familiar to this very day. A quick glance at the membership roll reveals Stuyvestants, Pfizers and Beekmans passing through the marble arch that once led to the palatial estate.
In an age of male dominated clubs, and sports in general for that matter, the Suburban Riding and Driving Club was ahead of its time. Women were not only allowed in the club, they were active participants both on and off the racetrack.
The club closed its doors in 1906 as the lure of the automobile became irresistable.
While the club, and the Seaman house itself, no longer exist, a beautiful description of both survive.
The below excerpt from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, published in 1895, takes us into the club in its heyday when membership swelled to some 300 equine enthusiasts.
THE SUBURBAN RIDING AND DRIVING CLUB
By Frances M. Smith.
“One of the most popular establishments in Gotham Town—or, rather, just out of town—is the Suburban Riding and Driving Club…
Little wonder that the Suburban Club is so much in vogue ; for not only are the roads and the scenery along the routes, of which there are several, as beautiful as any whip could desire, but the club itself is a most attractive place. Every accommodation has been provided for ladies, so that members may take their families along to enjoy the ride or drive and stop for refreshment, or make a day of it ” in the country,” and yet be easily within an hour of the central part of the city. It is a youthful organization— scarcely a year old—and yet it is already as powerful as it is popular.
The headquarters are the spacious premises formerly known as Seaman Castle, situated on the Kingsbridge Road. The mansion is a beautiful structure of white marble, with a view from any part of the house or grounds across the Hudson to the Palisades. A lawn sweeps down from the main entrance to the edge of Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
Entering through the hospitable porch, the visitor finds himself in a hall, baronial in proportions and extending from front to rear. The dining room, formerly the drawing room, at the right, is also spacious, and it is made to seem even larger than it is in reality by a delightful arrangement of mirrors that reach from ceiling to floor and which stand in deep niches on one side and at one end of the room. White and gold are the colors of this apartment. There are many fine oil paintings and several charming pieces of marble statuary. Opening out of this grand salon, and also on the right or southerly side of of the house is another room, once the library. This is used as a dining room when a member of the club wants to give a dinner party to a few friends. The mahogany bookcases still remain and the marble busts-Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Byron and Scott among the number. Opening from this room is the conservatory, in which grow all the choicest plants known to the tropics, as well as many of our own zone, and beautiful flowers of every description.
The ladies reception room, at the left of the main entrance, is furnished in a style to correspond to the rest of the house, although somewhat more luxuriously than appears in the illustration, as the photograph was taken before the full complement of easy chairs and sumptuous divans were in place. Felix, the steward, sees to it that dainty jardinières are constantly kept filled with fragrant flowers, both winter and summer.
Another spacious apartment has been fitted up as a café. It is especially designed for the male members of the club. Small tables are distributed throughout the room, the walls are hung with sporting prints, some of which are fine old coaching scenes presented to Colonel Kip (the club’s president) by James Gordon Bennett many years ago. One print represents Mr. David S. Hammond’s famous trotter’s Tot, Frederica, Nellie S., Corona and Roberta.
On the upper floor, over the main porch, is a quaint room originally used as a chapel, and in the northeast corner is a large and handsome room; this has been set apart as a dressing room for the ladies. All the rooms on this floor are beautifully furnished, and complete in every appointment.
All the members of the club are naturally enthusiastic on the subject of their charming quarters, and one who is something of a poet speaks of it in the following terms, which will not seem at all extravagant to one who visits the place:
‘With such a palatial edifice; with all the luxuries and the finest restaurant in the world; with all the comforts of a fireside; with all the companionship and social jollity of a selected membership of ladies and gentlemen; with all the breezes that blow from any direction to cool the heated brow on a summer’s day; with all the perfumes of the wildflowers that grow in the meadow and climb on the rocks and creep up the hillside to greet the nostrils and by their beauty to enchant the eye; with the sloping lawns, winding driveways of an eighth of a mile leading up to the doorway, and the marble staircases ascending the terraces, and with gravel pathways that beckon one into the gardens—who, if he were a member and permitted to enjoy the privileges of membership, would hesitate to take a drive of an hour from Fifty-ninth Street to the portals of the Suburban Riding and Driving Club?’
On the roof of the castle a flagstaff has been erected, from which the American flag and the club streamer, bearing the name ‘Suburban,’ in big red letters, float on the breeze.”