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

Fort Tryon Park History

Named by the British for Sir William Tryon (1729–1788), Major General and the last British governor of colonial New York, Fort Tryon was a segment in a series of posts along the Hudson River “Fort Washington” during the revolutionary war. Margaret Corbin (1751–1800?), for whom the park’s drive and the circle near the entrance are named, took control of her fallen husband John’s cannon during the 1776 attack and was wounded during the clash. In 1977, the City Council named the drive in her honor.

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.

In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960) bought the Billings mansion and began developing the property as a park which he ultimately presented to the City of New York, employing the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm to help him realize his vision for the site. Rockefeller even purchased land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson—now known as the Palisades State Park—to preserve Fort Tryon’s stunning views of the palisades. Although the Billings mansion burned to the ground in the 1920s, a small frame and stucco gatehouse from the original property remains located just west of Margaret Corbin Circle. Original estate walls, entrance pillars, and driveways were incorporated into the park design by Rockefeller. Design of the park began in 1927 when Rockefeller hired Olmsted Brothers. Rockefeller presented the park to the City of New York in 1935.

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870–1957), son of the co–designer of Central and Prospect Parks, spent four years transforming the site’s rocky topography and thin soil into a manicured landscape. Olmsted designed Fort Tryon Park with promenades, terraces, wooded slopes, and eight miles of pedestrian paths, and was careful to preserve open areas and the spectacular views of the Hudson and the Palisades. He 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.

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. By the 1980s, the garden had become overgrown. Thanks to the partnership between the Parks Department, the Greenacre Foundation, and volunteers, Parks completed a three–year restoration of the garden and reopened long–lost views of the Hudson and the Palisades in 1988. Since 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 close to $3 million to help preserve capital improvements made to date and to continue the revitalization throughout the park’s entire 67 acres.

Related Links

Historical Timeline of Fort Tryon Park

Historic Image Gallery

CKG Billings Estate on MyInwood.net