Although NYC divested most of its colonial-era “royal” names after defeating the British in the Revolutionary War, there are a few that doggedly hang on, such as Prince St. in Soho, Kings Highway in Brooklyn, and Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan, which was named for a British fort commemorating Sir William Tryon (1729-1788), the last British governor of the colonies. The city took title to the property, which was partly owned by the former Cornelius Billings estate, in 1917, and the large (67 acres) park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (son of the Central and Prospect Park developer) in 1935. There are highlights for even the most avowed non-naturalist such as your webmaster to enjoy here.
Fort Tryon Park is one of the two great parks of upper Manhattan island, the other is Inwood Hill Park (which still has caves where Native Americans resided, Manhattan’s last forest, and the spot where, according to many accounts, Peter Minuet “purchased” the island from the Lenape since the Lenape did not follow the concept of personal property to be bought and sold, they were unaware they were even selling the land).
I reached Fort Tryon Park via Broadway and about Ellwood St., and if you’ve ever climbed the steps and hills from Broadway up to the park promontory, you’ll agree that if you did those steps every day, you’d quickly be back in fighting form.
In season, there’s plenty to fancy plant, tree and bird lovers, but I’m more of a masonry fan, and in Fort Tryon I found much to pique interest, including some Billings-era remnants.
On a somewhat hazy day the New Jersey Palisades, created by Hudson River erosion over thousands of years, are visible. To the north, The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in medieval art and assembled by John D. Rockefeller Junior in 1938, looms over Fort Tryon Park.
Central Park isn’t the only one with nifty rustic shelters and masonry arches. Upon ascending the steps I huffed and puffed my way into the Gazebo, which overlooks Sir William (as in Tryon)’s Dog Run. There are a series of arches in the western end of the park carrying pedestrian paths under Margaret Corbin Dr., named for a woman who “manned” a cannon after her husband was shot during a battle in the war for independence—one of the USA’s first female combatants.
One of the most interesting aspects of Fort Tryon Park is that this plaque commemorating American troops and Margaret Corbin was erected by Cornelius Billings in 1909 when this was still part of his estate. The plaque is immense.
There’s a full-service restaurant, the New Leaf Cafe, within Fort Tryon Park. The ivied arches lead to Linden Terrace, the park’s highest point, giving views of eastern Manhattan and the Bronx beyond that. This secluded architectural gem, in need of renovation, was discovered by New York Restoration Project founder Bette Midler as she and friends undertook clean-up and restoration of Fort Tryon Park in 1995. In 2001, NYRP was able to assume management of the establishment—formerly operated as a New York City Parks concession—and within a few years, transformed the New Leaf into a fine dining destination.
Fort Tryon Park has preserved several elements from the Billings estate, including this gatehouse serving the main mansion, which burned down in 1925 before the park opened. It stood for 18 years. Stone gates and a brick carriage roadway can be seen trailing north of the Henry Hudson Parkway, which was reconfigured for speeding autos. The brick driveway is now a pedestrian path, along with several former roads through the park.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)