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!

April in NYC

Imagine a new rendition of an old classic:

April in New York, magnolias in blossom,
Picnics beneath flowering cherry trees,
...April in New York, who can I run to?
What have you done to my heart?

When my husband and I moved to New York City back in 2014, it was the middle of November. Looking back, I don’t think I’d ever visited Manhattan during the warm months of the year. I’d never experienced Spring or Summer in the Big Apple.

A good friend of mine who lived here at the time told us, “Just wait. In Spring, you’ll truly fall in love with the city.”

She wasn’t kidding. And she was 100% correct.

One of several saucer magnolias we walk by every morning on our daily walks in Morningside Park, in upper Manhattan

I’m sure I’ve pointed out in previous posts just how green the city is. We learned once during a presentation with NYC Cares that the amount of green space throughout the five boroughs was enough to fill the entire area of Manhattan at least twice over! And among all that green space are a lot of flowering plants and trees. And I do mean a lot.

Pictured, from top to bottom, left to right: dogwood, daffodil, weeping cherry (pink), cherry and tulip, weeping cherry (white), forsythia, magnolia, cherry, and a hill of tulips!

We recently passed the year mark for the pandemic (and the “shelter-in-place” mandate of mid-March, 2020) and since that time last year, we’ve been taking a 3-mile walk every morning through at least two of the green spaces near our home, including Morningside Park, where most of the above pictures were taken. So, we’re now seeing our second Spring season on these walks, and every day, getting to see the flowers slowly opening, or fully blossoming, and the leaves following suit, is truly a meditative experience.

In fact, I wrote about meditating to the senses amidst all this Spring finery, not too long ago!

In addition to the gorgeous spaces we encounter daily, nearby, there are at least 4 distinct gardens throughout the five boroughs known as “botanical gardens,” (plus a “conservatory garden” in Central Park) that are dedicated to the beauty of nature and plants. And just last weekend, we got to visit the biggest one – the New York Botanical Garden.

And every so often the NYBG brings in an artist whose work is spread out not only inside the conservatories, but outside around the grounds as well, and this year, that artist is Yayoi Kusama.

My favorite image from our recent visit. This is Kusama’s “Dancing Pumpkin” (2020), just outside the Haupt Conservatory. Being an outdoor installation, it was accessible with the “Grounds Only” pass.

According to its site, the NYBG is the largest botanical garden in any U.S. city – over 250 acres – and it’s situated in Bronx Park, an idyllic spot chosen in the late 1800s by eminent botanists, Nathaniel Lord & Elizabeth Britton, after visiting the gardens of Kew, London. Now a National Historic Landmark, it boasts over 1 million plants, including an enormous Victorian-style glass conservatory, an award-winning rose garden, over 50 acres of forest, as well as areas dedicated to magnolias, cherry trees, daffodils, maples, conifers, herbs and other edible plants, and so much more. It also has a very robust education side, as well, including adult education classes, workshops for children, an edible academy, and even a professional school of horticulture!

Currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you must register tickets in advance, even for grounds-only access. The Kusama exhibits are extremely popular, so you’ll have to plan months in advance if you want to have access to the Conservatory or other indoor exhibits. But there’s plenty on the grounds to enjoy!

Kusama’s “I Want to Fly to the Universe” (2020) greets guests who arrive via the Main Entrance
Flowering “Weeping Cherries” grace the walk in front of the Haupt Conservatory. Who needs to go inside when so much beauty is just out front, with hundreds more acres to explore?
A walk along “Daffodil Hill,” where the Garden is planting 1,000,000 new daffodil bulbs in celebration of their 125th anniversary. And some of the existing plantings are from the 1920s!

Everywhere we turn, it seems, there are flowers, flowering trees, and plants just bursting with beautiful activity. Last weekend and this weekend a hidden garden on West 89th street, the Westside Community Garden, is hosting a Tulip Festival to celebrate its Spring blooms. Two blocks from where we live, on the campus of City College (past a striking magnolia), is a young peach tree that has just exploded with flowers. The 19th century catholic church down the block is flocked by Japanese Flowering Cherries, much like those lining the College Walk on Columbia University’s Morningside campus (see below). Tomorrow we plan to bike to Central Park and walk through the conservatory garden and hope to see the crabapples in bloom.

I hope you have time and the space to take in some of nature’s wonders, this season (and every season). May the blossoming of flowers and the growth of new life parallel the blossoming of new adventures and opportunities for you.

Japanese Flowering Cherry trees lining the College Walk of Columbia University’s Morningside Campus

And with that, here are even more pictures from our NYBG excursion. Most of them are from the perennial garden in front of the Conservatory, but you’ll notice the grove of magnolias from an area of the gardens dedicated to them (what you see is only a fraction!) and then another Kusama exhibit in the pond at the center of the Native Plant collection. Incidentally, the main photo of my blog is of the Native Plant collection, in the Fall! The Kusama piece, pictured here, is made up of dozens of free floating mirrored orbs that move with the water, bumping and squeaking against one another. It’s titled “Narcissus Garden,” and was first created and shown in 1966. I took a short video of the movement of the orbs, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out well!

Don’t forget to plan your own NYBG visit, here. And if you don’t live in the city and want to plan a future trip, here, consider visiting during the Spring season. You’ll fall even more in love with the city, if you do. My friend and I are in complete agreement about that.

Bloom in The Catskills: Take a Day (Or Week) Away from NYC

If you’re from New York City, or have lived here for any amount of time, you might be familiar with that mythical land known as The Hudson Valley.

A view of Bear Mountain from the edge of Cold Spring, NY

For those without cars (which was us for the first five and a half years of living here in Manhattan) this magical place was only a short train ride away, watching the Hudson River landscape roll by as the train traveled north and stopped at wonderful places like Tarrytown, Cold Spring, or Beacon. The perfect day trip escapes!

Once in Cold Spring or Beacon, you might discover portions of what is known as the Hudson Highlands – Breakneck Ridge and Mount Beacon, near Beacon, and Mt. Taurus or “Bull Hill” in Cold Spring (and check out all the ruins). Further east, these hills lead into what are known as the Taconic Mountains, stretching into Connecticut and up into the Berkshires.

But across the Hudson, these hills blend into the Catskill Mountains, technically not a series of mountains, but a mature dissected plateau that stretches from the Hudson River west to the Appalachian Mountains, blending into the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania and the Shawagunk Ridge, or Gunks, to the Southwest.

Check out our route (we drove up to New Paltz from Manhattan) and this guide to the Northeast Appalachians (source unknown):

A couple weeks ago we decided to take a week off of work to venture north, barely two hours away from our home in the city, to nestle into an AirBnB near the Gunks and the Catskills. Base camp was a few miles west of Stone Ridge, NY – situated comfortably between two of our favorite Hudson Valley stops, Kingston and New Paltz!

(If you’re only interested in the shops and restaurants we visited on our trip… scroll all the way down and skip all the pictures!)

The areas west of the Hudson aren’t accessible by train or public transportation, so a car was essential. Here are some amazing things we learned and experienced!

On our first day of exploring, we decided to walk along the Ashokan Reservoir. This reservoir is the source of water from which we drink every single day, at home! It’s sent down to the city through an underground aqueduct, powered by gravity, and supplies the entire New York City area with water. Signs around the reservoir claim that the water so clean, naturally, that very little filtration and cleaning is needed before it reaches NYC!

And other signs point out that this area is a popular spot for bald eagles to nest. And not much longer after we read this, we actually watched a bald eagle leave a group of trees along the shore and fly out across the reservoir.

Easier to see in person, of course!

Our next adventure included a visit to the vibrant town of Woodstock (incidentally, not the site of the infamous Woodstock Festival of ’69, which happened about 50 miles away, but carrying a spiritual and “hippie” vibe all its own – though definitely related) and a hike up Overlook Mountain.

Check out the dates on these “signatures” in the rock!

Overlook Mountain comes complete with an abandoned hotel, the Overlook Mountain House (also, not Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel from The Shining – that honor belongs to the Stanley Hotel in Colorado… but I bet it’s still creepy at night!)

At the summit stands a fairly wobbly fire tower – which we only climbed halfway due to wind and sheer terror – from which we were able to get some incredible views (see if you can spot the abandoned hotel again in that last picture… and check out the frozen lake in the distance!). Amazing to still see so much snow and ice – and even having some trouble on the trails without microspikes or crampons. Meanwhile, the sun was so warm we had no need for our jackets!

One place I can heartily recommend for food if you visit the area is the Phoenicia Diner. I didn’t think to take pictures at the time, because we were so hungry and the food was so exceptional! We actually ate there for two of the three days we were out hiking, because we enjoyed it so much. Incredible food, and on a sunny day their outdoor dining area was the perfect spot to picnic, nestled between among the hills! (See below for full recommendations)

Our last adventure in the Catskills was a failed attempt to climb Slide Mountain – the tallest peak in the Catskills! Our guidebook did warn us about crossing a tributary after a big rainfall to reach the trail… and it had just rained the day before!

Sam contemplates how to cross the rapids… to no avail!

Needless to say, it didn’t take long to find another trail to explore. Just down the road was an incredibly popular hike up to a piece of Panther Mountain known as the “Giant Ledge.” While the trail up was mostly an icy stream, the final scrambling climb up steep rocky steps brought us to the a summit with rocky cliffs that granted us more spectacular views… and (oddly) cell service!

Our last evening we decided to dine in Kingston, where we don’t get to spend much evening time, since we’re usually there on a day trip, and have to get back to the dogs. We also gave ourselves time on the way back the next morning to go up and over the Hudson to walk around in Rhinebeck, which is another Hudson Valley town worth visiting (they’ve a wonderful bookstore – see below!)

Here are some of our recommendations from our trip – in a handy list!

West of the Hudson River

New Paltz

Water Street Market – Antique stores, good food, records, and more! LOTS of shops and food in a small space. Everything you need!

Barner Books & Inquiring Minds – lovely new-&-used bookstores, across the street from one another

Stoneridge

Hash – Incredible breakfast stop on the way up to Kingston from Accord. Absolutely worth the stop if you’re in the area. They make their own sausage!

Accord

Bluebird Wine & Spirits – Found some incredible sparkling apple wine to enjoy at our AirBnB (pictured above)

Woodstock

Candlestock – I was OBSESSED with this store and made us visit it again before heading home

Oriole-9 – Delightful American fare featuring organic produce from the owner’s own farm!

Phoenicia

Phoenicia Diner – they even have their own cookbook (also available on Amazon… even Target!)

Kingston

Stockade District – a wonderful historic area to walk around; a delightful small-town downtown feel!

Kingston Consignments – a two-level antique store packed to the brim. Lots of fun finds, and we ALWAYS spend time here, ever visit.

Hoffman’s House – Great historic home tavern experience; some of the building dates to the 1600s.

Front Street Tavern – Solid American tavern and bistro fare. They have rooftop seating!

Stella’s – Delicious authentic Italian. Huge portions!

Stockade Tavern – Almost completely hidden gem, with a speakeasy vibe; Incredible cocktails!

Half Moon Books – Another used bookstore with more books then it could possibly sell, but a WONDERFULLY large religion and spirituality room in the back.

Rhino Records – Come for the incredible record collection, stay for the hidden gems hidden in the used books!

Rough Draft – Bookstore AND bar? Who doesn’t want that? Write now (haha) you get to take your drinks to go, but it’s worth a browse before you grab a drink.

East of the Hudson

Rhinebeck – Lovely Main Street and home to oldest hotel in America (The Beekman Arms)

Beekman Arms Antique Market – Another spacious and roomy antique barn full of incredible finds. Saw a handmade china cabinet from the early 1800s, here!

Oblong Books – one of the bigger Hudson Valley bookstores selling new books, only; they also stock records, games, and more!

Pete’s Famous Diner – Fun diner with warm and friendly staff. Delicious breakfast, especially if you’re starting a long day of walking!

Beacon – One loooong main street, but fun places to shop and eat at both ends

Bank Square Coffee Shop – If you’re entering Beacon from the train, stop here for a cup of caffeine to accompany you on the long walk up Main Street!

Utensil – Even if I don’t need anything for the kitchen, I always seem to find something to buy here!

The Pandorica – Doctor Who themed Cafe, perfect for all companions

Glazed Over Donuts – Donuts made to order… try the maple icing and bacon topping! (Voted “Best Donuts in the Hudson Valley – 2020”!)

Melzingah Ale House – Our go-to spot when we come to Beacon, especially after a hike. Sit at the bar and chat with Lucas, and sample from their extensive beer menu; Something for all tastes!

Solstad House – Purchases of select benefit the home for senior dogs (the store owners are passionate about dog rescue). We stock up on soup bowl coozies and handmade face masks.

Cold SpringLots of lovely boutiques and antique stores!

Hudson Hill’s – Lovely brunch spot in Cold Spring with a delicious and robust menu

Split Rock Books – One of my favorite bookstores in the Valley. Well-stocked, with generous and helpful staff!

The Pig Hill Inn – Whenever we’ve stayed overnight in Cold Spring, we always stay here. Jacuzzi tubs in many of the rooms, and woodstoves for the colder nights.

Poor George – Super fun boutique store with hip clothing, accessories, and even some houseplants and gifts for those with green thumbs!

Moo Moo’s – LOTS of fresh, homemade flavors, and it’s right next to the Hudson. Grab a cone and walk along the water during the warmer days!

Where is Mannahatta?

Where did Manhattan island get its name? 

(Psst… scroll down for a virtual tour of Manhattan in the year 1609!)

Before we can start our “walk,” I want to introduce you to Mannahatta.

Back in 2014, when my husband and I still lived in Oklahoma City, I was lucky enough to direct a new play during the Native American Playwright Festival, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta. (It has since been produced all over the country!)

Here’s a beautiful description of the play from the Public Theatre, which produced the play in NYC for the first time in 2014 (the page appears to be gone, but the quote was borrowed from Tanis Parenteau’s blog post relating her experience in the production, playing the double role of Jane Snake and Le-Le-Wa-You):

“A gripping journey from the fur trade of the 1600s to the stock trade of today, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA tells the story of Jane Snake, a brilliant young Native American woman with a Stanford MBA. Jane reconnects with her ancestral homeland, known as Manahatta, when she moves from her home with the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma to New York for a job at a major investment bank just before the financial crisis of 2008. Jane’s struggle to reconcile her new life with the expectations and traditions of the family she left behind is powerfully interwoven with the heartbreaking history of how the Lenape were forced from their land. Both old and new Manahatta converge in a brutal lesson about the dangers of living in a society where there’s no such thing as enough. Written in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA is a stunning new play about the discovery that the only thing you can truly own is who you are and where you come from.”

The word “Mannahatta” comes from the Lenni Lenape, or “The People,” that lived here well before the Dutch colonizers arrived in the 1600s. Mannahatta means

“Island of Many Hills”

While much of lower Manhattan seems very flat, where the further you go uptown, the hillier it gets! (Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of dynamite shaped the terrain of New York City into what we see today).

The Spring I directed Nagle’s play, Sam and I visited NYC, in part to plan our future move, that year, and in part to research much of the play’s historical representation of those first encounters, and what the island was like, then.

For instance, did you know Pearl Street in the Financial District was so named because of the pearls that the Dutch found on the path that lined the Southeastern shore of the island – leftover from the oysters that were harvested there?

Or that Broadway, one of the only main streets in Manhattan that runs “crooked,” follows The Broad Way, an old trading path that the Lenape used?

Or that Wall Street is named for the Wall that was built by the Dutch settlers, in part to keep Native people out of New Amsterdam?

(And I bet you can guess what used to be where Canal Street is, now!)

All in all, New York City looked much, much different in the past, before Henry Hudson first arrived, and there is one incredible source I’ve turned to again and again – and still do, just to marvel at what New York City once was.

The Welikia Project!

Cover of Mannahatta book, by Dr. Eric Sanderson

Created in part by the author of an incredible book, Mannahatta by Dr. Eric Sanderson, the Welikia Project has painstakingly researched what each area in Manhattan might very well have looked like in 1609, and created digital representations! Have a look! If you know someone or something’s address, type it in and find out what it looked like.

Having established the big picture of the island – and my fascination with it – I’d like to start our “walk” (via my blog!) where Sam and I spent most of our time exploring, back in 2014. It’s where we always begin our annual island walks, and it boasts the most “untouched” area of the entire island…

Check back soon for our first stop, here on my blog…

Inwood Hill Park!

(cover photo courtesy of Welikia Project)