Heather Garden looking southwest with the George Washington Bridge in the background

Fort Tryon Park History

Battle of Fort Washington

During the Revolutionary War, Fort Tryon Park was one of the battle sites along the Hudson River and home to the Battle of Fort Washington. The British named the site after their Major General, Sir William Tryon (1729-1788), the last British Governor of colonial New York City. The Margaret Corbin Circle at the Southern entrance of the park is named after Margaret Corbin, the woman who defended Northern Manhattan in the battle against the British troops. When Margaret’s husband, John Corbin, fell during battle, Margaret took control of her husband’s canon. Her canon was one of the last canons firing during the battle. She became the first woman to receive a military pension. The park drives are named after her.

During the 19th century, wealthy New Yorkers built elegant estates around the Fort Tryon area, the most notable being the house of Cornelius K.G. Billings, a wealthy industrialist and horseman from Chicago. From 1901 to 1905, Billings reportedly spent more than $2 million building his mansion, Tryon Hill. In 1909, in honor of the Hudson Fulton Celebration, Billings funded a stele erected at the apex of the park memorializing Corbin and the Continental Army’s defense of the site. Remnants of the mansions driveway can still be found today along the park’s Billings Lawn and under its Billings Arcade.

John D. Rockefeller and Fort Tryon Park

In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) bought the Billings mansion and hired the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm in 1927 to design and develop the property as a park. Rockefeller also purchased the land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson – now known as the Palisades Interstate Park – in an effort to preserve Fort Tryon’s stunning views of the Palisades. Although the Billings mansion burned to the ground in the 1920s, Rockefeller incorporated the remaining structure into the park design. A small frame stucco gatehouse from the original property remained as well as the original estate walls, entrance pillars, and driveways. In 1935, Rockefeller presented the completed park as a gift to the City of New York.

Opening day parade, 1935
Opening day parade, 1935

The Olmsted Brothers

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), son of the co-designer of Central and Prospect Parks, spent four years transforming Fort Tryon Park’s rocky topography and soil into a manicured landscape. Olmsted designed Fort Tryon Park with promenades, terraces, wooded slopes, and eight miles of pedestrian paths. He was careful to preserve open areas and the spectacular views of the Hudson and the Palisades, and noted in 1927 that this park had one of the few unspoiled river views in Manhattan. The Cloisters opened in the north end of Fort Tryon Park in 1938 after Rockefeller bought sculptor George Grey Barnard’s (1863–1938) collection of medieval art. Inspired by Romanesque monasteries, the museum includes several cloisters, or courtyards, from actual French monasteries. Now a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was designated an official New York City landmark in 1974.

Construction of Anne Loftus Playground at Broadway and Riverside Drive
Construction of Anne Loftus Playground at Broadway and Riverside Drive

Preserving and Maintaining the Park

Due to budget constraints in the City during the 1970s, by the turn of the decade Fort Tryon Park’s promenades, gardens and landscapes had fallen into deep disrepair. In 1983, Fort Tryon Park was designated an official City landmark, and a plan was developed the following year to fully renovate the park. The park’s Heather Garden was one of the first projects slated for renovation. Due to the partnership between the Parks Department, the Greenacre Foundation, and volunteers, the Heather Garden was reclaimed as were long-lost views of the Hudson and the Palisades. Since its founding in 1998, the Fort Tryon Park Trust has been working to build upon the Parks Department and the Greenacre Foundation’s initial restoration work, raising an endowment of $4 million to help target and preserve capital improvements, organize programming that activates the park, and fund supplemental staff.

Center path of Heather Garden, pre-1980s restoration
Center path of Heather Garden, pre-1980s renovation

Heather Garden, post-1980s restoration
Heather Garden, post-1980s restoration

Related Links

Historical Timeline of Fort Tryon Park

Historic Image Gallery

CKG Billings Estate on MyInwood.net