The Hidden Driveway of Fort Tryon

I don’t quite know why, but it’s taken me years to finally write about Fort Tryon.

Every year, when I organize my “Walk the Island” event with friends, walking the length of Manhattan on July 4th, I always think, this would be the perfect time to write about living in NYC.

After all, I love to share the history and geology of the island I’ve grown to call home. I’m always talking up a storm on these walks, and I had a strong desire at one time to be a tour guide, here.

What usually happens, though, is that I get swept up in the event itself, bask in the experience of being in the moment… and then forget completely to sit down and share it with others. And that’s… rather selfish, maybe?

I’ve written more than once about the gem that is Inwood. You can see my first post about it, here…

But when people talk about spending the day in a park uptown, they don’t often go all the way to Inwood Hill Park (even though I obviously recommend it every now and then). Usually people are talking about a visit to Fort Tryon Park.

And what’s not to love? Located in Washington Heights, just south of Inwood and Inwood Hill Park, it features fabulous gardens, a giant terrace with a panoramic view of the Hudson, space to sunbathe and picnic, lovely bridges and stunning natural rock structures… and a medieval art museum that looks like a Romanesque monastery!

Before waxing on and on about the 20th century history of the area, it’s important to emphasize that this land originally belongs to the Lenape people. According to the Fort Tryon Trust, the local tribe referred to themselves as the Wiechquaesgeck, and called the area Chquaesgeck, before the Dutch arrived in the 1600s – they finally took control of the land in the 1700s (you can still visit the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in Inwood as an example of life in that era – it was built in 1785!)

Additionally, Fort Tryon and the area around it played a major role in the American Revolutionary War (more on that, later!)

But did you also know, prior to it being a park, it used to be the site of a giant mansion… and that the driveway to that mansion still exists, if you know where to look for it?

Photos from a privately published book commissioned by C.K.G. Billings in 1910, via myinwood.net

The mansion belonged to one C.K.G. Billings, who was heir to the …, one of the wealthy elite from the Gilded Age. The mansion was built in 1907, though Billings soon tired of it (!!!) and sold the entire proprerty to John D. Rockefeller for $35,000 per acre. Rockefeller wanted to turn the property into a park, but did not want the house – and planned to demolish it! Though public outcry saved the structure, it went the way so many buildings did… and burned to the ground in the mid 1920s.

But Rockefeller then succeeded in his vision of creating a park on the property, hiring the Olmstead Brothers (of Central Park fame) to design it. The cloisters museum was added in the 1930s, housing medieval art donated by the Rockefeller estate. Over the years, throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, more additions and renovations have solidified the park as one of the most beautiful escapes in all of Manhattan.

But what about the Billings driveway?

From the Heather Gardens at the lower end of the park (just inside the Southern entrance, from the 190th street exit on the A train – take the elevator up) if you go due east, toward the Hudson River, and keep going down…

First, you’ll arrive on a small terrace with an absolutely stunning view of the George Washington Bridge. This was part of the driveway itself, as it snaked up toward the top of the hill. You can continue the slope to the right, and follow the curve around and below, or…

There is a staircase to the left, and at the bottom you’ll find yourself in a peculiar spot with an archway underneath the terrace, with places in the ceiling where chandeliers may have once gently swayed, and large stone structures that mark the entrance to what was once the large and elegant driveway to the main house.

Here’s a glance of the house with the driveway intact, for perspective.

Photo from Library of Congress, courtesy of Untapped Cities

The driveway was a very difficult part of the estate to construct, and was actually designed by a Japanese military engineer, General Nogi, and cost $250,000. It’s constructed from the same rock that was blasted out of the hill in which it is constructed!

All in all, Fort Tryon is full of marvel, and even an entire day might not give you enough time to explore every corner (I’ll have to explain a bit more of its American Revolution days in my next post!) If you’re ever in New York City, and fancy a getaway with astounding views of the Hudson, stunning flower gardens, a medieval art museum, and so much more… plan a trip to Fort Tryon Park!

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