Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings (born September 17, 1861 in Saratoga, New York - died May 6, 1937 in Santa Barbara, California) was a wealthy industrialist, a noted horseman and tycoon. When he retired in 1901 at age 40 he was president of the People’s Gas Light and Coke Company in Chicago.
Billings grew up in Chicago where his entrepreneurial father was a principal in the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company during the time when Chicago was largely lit by gaslight. After college he joined his father’s firm, eventually inheriting controlling interest in the company and, at the age of 40, retired from business to devote his time to his growing stable of horses. In 1901 he moved his family and his horses to New York City, and acquired acreage on the largely undeveloped north end of Manhattan. It was near the newly opened and very fashionable Harlem Speedway, an exclusive dirt track along the Harlem River between 155th and Dyckman Streets.
Dinner on horseback
On March 28, 1903, Billings who had recently opened a private 25,000-square-foot, $200,000 trotting stable near 196th Street in what is now Fort Tryon Park; was going to celebrate the opening by hosting an exclusive dinner at the stable catered by fashionable restaurateur Louis Sherry. However word leaked out and crowds of newspaper reporters gathered around his entrance gates hoping to see the fabulous stable and all of the glamorous visitors. Billings decided to quietly move the party and instead rented the grand ballroom of Sherry's, at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horeses (who had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by freight elevator) while having dinner. The diners ate from trays attached to their saddles and sipped Champagne through rubber tubes from iced bottles in their saddlebags. The $50,000 bill included a photographer from the celebrated Byron Company to document the event.
Beginning in 1907 Billings, his wife Blanche E. MacLeish Billings, two children and 23 servants moved to a full-time residence to the west of the stables, on a promontory 250 feet above the Hudson River. Described at the time as "In the style of Louis XIV", the house had several large towers, a Mansard roof along with a 75-foot marble swimming pool, squash courts and bowling alleys. It was called Tryon Hall. The cost was $2,000,000 and it was generally considered among the most lavish private houses in Manhattan. It had towers and turrets, conical steeples, oriel windows, and vast expanses of shingled roof. It stood on Manhattan's highest point, 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 he had his 232-foot yacht, Vanadis. Billings then hired the architects Buchman & Fox to design an extravagant entry to his estate. They laid out the roadway and proposed a great arched stone gallery to carry the top section. Most of the stone was quarried right on the site and the surface of the roadway was paved with chamfered bricks. The total cost of Billings’ new driveway was $250,000.
By 1916 Billings had tired this location and sold the whole operation to John D. Rockefeller Jr for $35,000 per acre. Rockefeller intended to tear down Tryon Hall initially and give the land to the city for a new park. Inwood and Washington Heights was in need of a park in the neighborhood, Architects protested destruction of the house and the city turned down the offer of a new park It was rented out. Tryon Hall burned in a spectacular fire in 1926 and the city finally accepted Rockefeller’s gift of the new 67-acre Fort Tryon Park, which opened in 1935. All that remains today of the estate is the old gatehouse near the park entrance and it's famous driveway.
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. In May 1903 Billings spent $12,500 at a dispersal sale in Cleveland for the mare and added her to his stable of matinee horses with the hopes that she could bring him a victory in the next Memphis race. His investment paid off as she became a phenomenal horse that captured the attention of the nation.
Billings moved to Santa Barbara, California in 1917 to more fully indulge his love of fast horses.
The Billings estate and mansion has been immortalized in the Philo Vance mystery The Dragon Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine.
Billings' yacht Vanadis is now anchored in Stockholm and is being used as a hotel.