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!

Blooming in NYC: Inwood

As promised in my last post, I want to continue the “bloom where you’re planted” theme in my writing by sharing the various things I find in my city when I seek out all it has to offer. If you’re not from NYC, maybe you’ll get some tips on what to visit when you’re here (or at least let you know what else exists here, aside from Times Square and other various tourist hellscapes…) If you’re from NYC or the nearby area, maybe you’ve seen what I’m describing and can chime in, or haven’t visited it yet and might want to check it out!

After spending my “Black Friday” outdoors in nature, far from the maddening crowd, my husband and I decided to travel even further uptown Saturday morning – originally planning to visit Fort Tryon Park, after breakfast at Rue La Rue Cafe. Sadly, Rue la Rue is closed (hopefully temporarily), but we opted for something that ended up being a fantastic adventure: Inwood!

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Muscota Marsh in Inwood Hill Park. Henry Hudson Bridge crosses Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

For those that don’t know, Inwood is the upper most neighborhood uptown, on the island of Manhattan (Oddly enough, the Bronx-situated neighborhood of Marble Hill is still considered part of the Manhattan borough). Inwood is, essentially, everything north of Fort Tryon Park.

What’s so “In” about Inwood?

Home to incredible restaurants and bars, such as The Park ViewLa Marina, Darling Coffee, Tryon Public House, Guadalupe’s, a 233-year-old Farmhouse-turned-museum, and more, Inwood is also home to quite possibly the most untouched natural landscape that Manhattan has to offer.

According to the NYC parks website,

Evidence of its prehistoric roots exists as dramatic caves, valleys, and ridges left as the result of shifting glaciers. Evidence of its uninhabited state afterward remains as its forest and salt marsh (the last natural one in Manhattan), and evidence of its use by Native Americans in the 17th century continues to be discovered. Much has occurred on the land that now composes Inwood Hill Park since the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, but luckily, most of the park was largely untouched by the wars and development that took place.

Inwood’s parks are the real deal. This is “old New York” at its oldest, and I’m excited to share a bit more about my interactions with Inwood Hill Park, as well as the morning I spent there this weekend.

Story Time!

Back in March of 2014, before we moved to NYC, we took a trip up here partly to scope out potential neighborhoods for our imminent move that fall, but partly for me to do research on a play I was directed in Oklahoma City, for a Native American Play Festival.

The play is titled Manahatta, written by Oklahoma-born, NYC-resident Choctaw playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle (it was being simultaneously workshopped at The Public Theater in NYC, and is now being performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its 2018 season). It tells parallel stories of the Lenni-Lenape people who originally lived in Manhattan (“Manahatta” is a Lenape word, meaning “island of many hills”) and were tricked into “selling” the land to the Dutch, and of a 20th century Native Delaware woman trying to reconcile her life in New York City, working on Wall Street, with the native roots of her ancestry, displaced to Oklahoma where her immediate family still lives. It was well received!

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OKC Theatre Company’s Manahatta starred Maya Torralba, Zack Morris, and Rachel Morgan. Artwork by Rachel Morgan.

I spent a lot of time in Inwood that March, discovering not only the “Indian Caves” where the Lenape people would camp while they spent their summers fishing in the nearby bodies of water (and are still in use today as shelter for the displaced), but the “Shorakkopoch Rock,” where, according to some legends, the actual transaction between the Dutch and the Native tribes took place.

The “Indian Caves” of Inwood Hill Park

Inwood - Shorakkopoch RockShorakkopoch Rock, where some say the infamous “sale” of Manahatta/Manhattan took place.

My husband and I host a walk from Inwood to Battery Park every fourth of July, in part to honor the history of the island, its original inhabitants, and its sordid relationship with the past and founding of our country. We have always begun our walk at this rock, even if it might not be the actual site of this legendary transaction.

Fast Forward to This Weekend…

In my last post, I had mentioned the “North Woods” of Central Park as a place that can very often be a true escape from the sights and the sounds of the city… but nowhere on the island of Manhattan is there a greater escape than Inwood Hill Park, where you’re not only escaping sights and sounds of the city, but much of the past millenium. The park is where you’ll even find Manhattan’s last surviving salt-water marsh (apparently there were once quite a few on the island), revitalized thanks to Columbia University, which has a boat house just next door.

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Muscota Marsh today.

Our day on Saturday began here, near this very salt water marsh, having a weekend brunch at the Indian Road Cafe, which we had first discovered this past summer during the Drums Along the Hudson, a Native American and Multicultural Festival.

Indian Road Cafe describes itself as “a restaurant in constant motion,” changing menus seasonally, and providing local artists and musicians the chance to display (or perform) some of their work on a weekly basis. Their menu also features local goods – they try to source as close to home as possible,

using a large group of Hudson Valley farms and producers. We also have relationships with purveyors on the Arthur Avenue (some call it the real Little Italy) in the Bronx, and source a great deal of fresh pasta, cheese, and meats a short ride away on the 12 bus. (from their website)

Saturday brunch included bottomless mimosas (I’ve said before that moderation is key, so only attend bottomless brunches in moderation), fresh fruit – as locally sourced as possible – and eggs from nearby Feather Ridge Farms. Oh, and some delicious French Toast. All in all, it was a wonderful meal in a wonderful place.

Outside the restaurant, there was even a “leave a book, take a book” stand. They clearly knew all the right buttons to push to provide us with the best start to a Saturday morning stay-cation experience in NYC.

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Of course, being that far north in Inwood, we couldn’t help but take advantage that afternoon and walk across the Broadway Bridge to the Marble Hill Target… but that’s a boring story that doesn’t need to be told here (except that I lost my great-uncle’s vintage sweater while I was there, alas!)

All in all, another wonderful chance to bloom here in NYC!

Have you been to Inwood Hill Park? Or, what’s your favorite part of Inwood?

If you’re not from these here parts, definitely consider visiting there when you do – and let me know, and I’ll tag along! And let me know where else I should visit that you might know, in your own city or state!