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!

#SpringIsComing

Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go
All shell be well again, I know.

Love, like the yellow daffodil, is coming through the snow.
Love, like the yellow daffodil, is Lord of all I know.

~ "Julian of Norwich," a song by Sydney Carter (based on the writings of Julian Norwich)

One of the benefits of working from home during the pandemic is that my husband and I now take walks every day, instead of scrambling to get on a crowded subway – and we get to engage with the natural world much more intimately. I’m grateful to have been able now to have witnessed all four seasons, up close.

And as we walked through Morningside Park earlier this week, my husband pointed out the green tips of the park’s army of daffodils starting to push through the surface of the earth – a signal that the world is waking up from its cold slumber.

And then, just as we left the park, I happened to glance through the iron fence, and saw this marvel:

Morningside Park, NYC – January 25, 2021

“It’s confused,” my husband said. We laughed, but still we were still in awe. After all, this was the very first Spring flower we had seen, appearing naturally in the cold earth. I’m sure its blossoms didn’t survive the winter mix we had the very next day, or would survive the snow we’re supposed to get later this weekend. But still… it was a sign!

If you’re not familiar with the pagan/Celtic calendar, next Monday, the 1st of February, is celebrated as Imbolc, one of the cross-quarter days that exist between the solstices and equinoxes (it’s also celebrated as Brigid’s Day, St. Brigit’s Day, and Candelmas).

Imbolc lies halfway between the Winter Solstice behind us and the Spring Equinox before us. Imbolc, from a word which could mean anything from “ewe’s milk,” to “in the belly” (referencing pregnancy in animals) to “ritual cleansing,” is when we celebrate our seeing the natural signs of Spring approaching. Ewes start to give milk, reassuring farmers with another supply of food after a long winter, and signaling the start of the reproductive cycle of nature. It’s the perfect time to get a jump on Spring Cleaning!

And, what else happens around this time? The very first Spring Flowers begin to appear.

This little daffodil, this brave, mighty symbol of the slow approach of warmer weather, reminded me of the sacred connection many have with another beautiful flower that blooms in what we’d argue are less-than-ideal circumstances.

For anyone who may frequent, or even occasionally visit, yoga studios, you might be familiar with the story of the lotus flower. Lotuses are everywhere in Yoga and Buddhist imagery, and feature in lots of meditations, mudras, and even chakra imagery.

What’s so special about the lotus? Check out this Zen proverb:

“May we exist like the lotus,
At home in muddy water.
Thus, we bow to life as it is.”

Zen Proverb – Source Unknown

You see, the lotus seed roots itself in the mud and scum of the river bottom, or the bottoms of ponds or flood-plains, rising up through the murky water to blossom above the water, in the open air. These beautiful, full, multi-petaled flowers are in contrast to the dark and unpleasant conditions that might exist beneath the surface. Thus, to be “like the lotus” is to allow ourselves to grow through the murkiness of our own lives and blossom in spite of the mud, in spite of the supposed darkness.

How is the daffodil like the lotus?

Like the lotus, the daffodil is struggling up through ground that symbolically appears almost inhospitable – the dark, murkiness of the pond, and the cold, hard Winter ground.

Like the lotus, the daffodil symbolizes the ongoing cycle of nature, regardless of the circumstances. Both the lotus and the daffodil “bow to life as it is,” and blossom, anyway. Even, like the daffodil, when there is the threat of weather that might destroy that blossom.

Like the lotus, the daffodil shows us what is to come. We don’t see the lotus growing in the muck until we see the flower appear above the water. We don’t see the work of the daffodil growing in the Winter ground until it starts to grow and bloom above the surface.

So, going into the next few weeks of winter, keep your eye out for those first flowers of Spring as they appear in the ground. I encourage you to take walks and keep looking for them, and celebrate when you find them. In the spirit of Imbolc, instead of seeing only the mud, the “final weeks of Winter,” know that the flowers are doing the work, and it’s only a matter of weeks before we see the hard work turn into the cornucopia of Spring!

St. Nicholas Park, Harlem, NYC – April 2015

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