Back in 1898, when a roadster was a fast trotting horse, not a speedy automobile, and what we now call swimming pools were called baths, millionaire sportsman C.K.G. Billings rode east from Chicago to conquer the big city. A photograph of one of his parties is still famous.
Billings had enriched himself in creating a monopoly over Chicago's natural gas supply. But after inheriting much of his family's fortune, he moved to New York and retired from his gas company in 1901, around his 40th birthday. Thereafter, Billings's business activities were secondary to gratifying his passion for fast horses. Wiry and athletic, himself a renowned equestrian, Billings owned some of the nation's finest trotters and pacers, one of which, Lou Dillon, was the first to trot a two-minute mile.
Dissatisfied with his Fifth Avenue mansion, Billings began creating an estate around the site of Revolution-era Fort Tryon. It was near the newly opened and very fashionable Harlem Speedway, an exclusive dirt track along the Harlem River between 155th and Dyckman Streets, elaborately maintained at taxpayers' expense for privately-owned horse drawn carriages, wagons, and sulkies.
Billings constructed a 25,000-square-foot stable, its stucco walls and shingled roof housing 22 carriages, 33 horses, a gymnasium, and living quarters, just off the Speedway at 197th Street. He intended to celebrate its completion with a stag formal dinner in the stable, catered by fashionable restaurateur Louis Sherry, on Saturday, March 28, 1903.
But reporters learned of the dinner and began hanging about his property. Billings felt they might spoil the fun. Sherry suggested secretly switching its location to the grand ballroom of Louis Sherry's, his restaurant on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street. Billings quietly notified his 36 guests.
When they arrived by 8 p.m., the ballroom had been decorated as a woodland garden, with trees and shrubbery and sod on the floor. The guests mounted placid horses, rented for the occasion, that had been brought in through the rear entrance and up in the elevator. Facing each other in a circle as if in a riding drill, the animals bore custom-made dining trays secured to their saddles. Numerous courses were served by waiters dressed as grooms in scarlet coat and white breeches, one to a rider. A real groom stood at each horse's head to reduce the risk of tossed trays, food, and riders; however, the horsemen had to suck down their own champagne through rubber tubes running from bottles in the ice-filled saddlebags. The feast cost some $50,000.
The reporters, many of whom had staked out Billings's stables until the wee hours, were irritated by the last-minute switch, and newspaper coverage emphasized the possibility that the event's elegance may have been tarnished by the horses' soiling of the banquet room floor.
Billings liked Washington Heights: He subsequently spent $2 million to build Tryon Hall, a huge Louis XIV chateau with towers and turrets, conical steeples, oriel windows, and vast expanses of shingled roof, where he lived with his wife, two children, and 23 servants. It stood on Manhattan's highest point, some 250 feet above sea level, with 20-mile views of the Hudson Valley. His 25-acre estate encompassed formal gardens, a 126-foot long bathhouse with a 75-foot indoor pool, and a yacht landing on the Hudson at Dyckman Street. There one might see Billings's 232-foot yacht, Venadis, which reportedly, though only the 14th-largest yacht flying the New York Yacht Club's burgee, might on a dark night be mistaken for a Cunard liner.
But Billings gave up on the East in 1917. He closed his 27-room apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue, sold Tryon Hall and the estate to John D. Rockefeller, moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., and even sold most of his stable, although ostensibly he had gone West to more fully indulge his love of fast horses.
When C.K.G. Billings died on May 6, 1937, much of his world had vanished. Blaming "prohibition and war-born Bolshevism," Sherry had closed his restaurant in 1919. The Speedway's glory days were gone long before it was paved in 1922; after 1940, when public access to the old carriage road was completely cut off by the Harlem River Drive, the Speedway was forgotten. Before the Parks Department rebuilt and reopened it in 2003 as part of the Greenway around Manhattan, it was as derelict as Hadrian's Wall.
Billings had hired the Byron Company, the city's leading society photographers, to record his banquet on horseback. The result is famous, ranking high in conspicuous consumption's iconography, combining grotesquerie with discomfort: the equestrians in white tie astride their mounts amid a forest of foliage. As society columnist Lucius Beebe later suggested, the photograph reinforced tabloid readers' belief that New York socialites went to bed in full evening dress after brushing their teeth in champagne.