Fort Tryon Park is the only park in northern Manhattan designed by the Olmstead Brothers (Frederick Law Jr. and John Charles) firm. The 66.6-acre park rests on some of the highest public land in Manhattan.
Fort Tryon Park is rich in history and culture. The Wiechquaesgeck Indians, a tribal group of the Lenape (or Delaware) Indian Confederacy, had inhabited the park until the late Seventeenth Century when the Dutch colonists succeeded in removing them from the area. This group had last occupied the Fort Tryon Park area in 1669 but did not relinquish their claims to the land until 1715, when they were offered goods delivered in exchange for land by Colonel Stephen Van Cortlandt.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Army lost Fort Tryon to the Royalist Forces on November 16, 1776. Fort Tryon was a northern defense for Fort Washington located on 183rd Street and Fort Washington Avenue. During the battle, this outpost held its position by Colonial forces for 4 hours against the Hessians.
Margaret Corbin Drive and Circle are named for the heroine of the battle and wife of John Corbin, who was an artilleryman in the First Pennsylvania Militia. Corbin was killed by a musketball while he was loading a cannon. Margaret stepped into his place and continued to load and fire the cannon. At the end of the fighting, Margaret was wounded by grapeshot and was found unconscious next to her husband. She was cared for by the British and was part of a prisoner exchange.
A plaque at Margaret Corbin Circle pays homage to this first woman patriot and soldier from Pennsylvania who fought for freedom in Washington Heights. During the British occupation of the area, the fort in the park was named for the last British Governor of the Province of New York, Major General Sir William Tryon.
During the Nineteenth Century, the land in Fort Tryon Park passed through various ownerships. Such owners were Augustus C. Richards, William Marcy Tweed, William Libbey, and C.K.G.Billings. The Richards mansion was known as Woodcliff Manor and the Billings home was Tryon Hall.
The Billings mansion was located at the terraces on the north end of the heather garden. Billings purchased 25 acres of land between 1901 and 1905 to build his home and spent $2 million for construction. Remnants of the estate can still be seen in the park today. These are the scenic overlook and the driveway that connected with the Henry Hudson Parkway. Tryon Hall burned down in 1925.
Another estate in Fort Tryon Park was the home of William Henry Hayes. In 1850 Hayes purchased a small plot of land and erected a home and stable. In time the property was sold and it became the Abbey Inn. The stable became an auto garage. The Inn was located approximately 800 feet north of the Billings mansion. At the entrance of the Inn were bombs from the Mexican War purportedly donated by James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald.
In 1917 John D. Rockefeller purchased the land for an ungodly sum of $35,000 per acre. After landscaping the property at a cost of $3,600,000, Rockefeller donated the land to New York City for use as a public park. The Olmstead Brothers designed the original plans for the park. There had been a rumor circulating that the elder Olmstead brother was the better architect and the younger got a better commission for his work. Fort Tryon Park was designated parkland in 1931 and was opened in October 1935.
In May 1938, the Cloisters opened with the help of funds from Rockefeller and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a collection of parts of medieval cloisters and the collection of George Grey Barnard. The Barnard collection had been in its own building on Fort Washington Avenue and 190th Street from 1914 to 1937.
The park’s Heather Garden with panoramic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades has, for years, interested and inspired many visitors who have come to see its scenic beauty. Many of the park’s overlooks are connected with five miles of pedestrian pathways. In 1983 the park was given landmark status.
The New Leaf Cafe operated by the New York Restoration Project has been a haven to visitors in the park. Area residents and frequent visitors remember the cafe by its previous names: Tryon’s, Fort Tryon Park Cafe, the Unicorn, and the Maple Leaf. The building was erected in the 1930s on the site of the Billings auto garage.
The Medieval Festival has become a part of the annual events in Fort Tryon Park. The Festival started in the 1970s under the auspices of the Cloisters. Eventually the Medieval Festival guild and then the Washington Heights-Inwood Development Corporation have coordinated in running the annual event.
The Festival draws visitors from the greater metropolitan area, and it depicts life in a village dating from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Puppetry, medieval art, pageantry, jousting, storytelling, falconry and medieval food are enjoyed by all who attend. Many of the participants dress in period outfits that embellish the flavor of the day.
At the northeast corner of the park is the Anne Loftus Playground. This playground was named in honor of Ms. Loftus, who was District Manager of Community Board 12 from October 1980 to September 1989, after a resolution was unanimously passed on June 21, 1990. In 1995 the playground underwent reconstruction with monies funded by City Council member Stanley E. Michels. It is the only playground that was originally designed by the Olmstead Brothers, and the reconstruction evokes the original plan.
For almost two decades, a local organization called Friends of Fort Tryon Park has helped to maintain the park. In October 1985 the group was instrumental in organizing a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the park’s opening to the citizens of New York. City officials and local residents were on hand for the event. Among the invited guests were descendants of British Governor William Tryon and a resident who was a child when she attended the opening ceremony in 1935. Friends of Fort Tryon Park is involved with clean-ups, gardening and other events in the park. The group is also involved with publishing a quarterly calendar of events at the Cloisters.