C. K. G. Billings

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C. K. G. Billings
C.K.G. Billings with his horse Lou Dillon after winning the Webster Cup in 1903
BornSeptember 17, 1861
DiedMay 6, 1937
Resting placeGraceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings (September 17, 1861 – May 6, 1937) was an American industrialist tycoon,[1] philanthropist, art collector, and a noted horseman and horse breeder.[2][3] An eccentric man,[2] Billings invested much of his time and money promoting the sport of trotting, also known as "harness racing" or "matinee racing".[3]

Life and career[edit]

Billings was born in Saratoga, New York on September 17, 1861, the son of Albert M. Bilings, a resident of Vermont,[3] and Augusta S. Billings née Farnsworth. He was raised in Chicago, Illinois from the age of three, attended schools in Chicago, and then Racine College in Racine, Wisconsin. When he finished college at 17 years old in 1879, he joined the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company – of which his father was a principal investor and president – beginning as a laborer.[3][4][2] When he became the firm's president in 1887,[2] he brought about the mergers from 1895 to 1910 of 12 gas companies into Peoples Gas.[5] He became chairman of the board of the company in 1901, a position he held until 1911.[2]

In 1885, Billings married Blanche E. MacLeish, whose father, Andrew MacLeish, was one of the founders of the Chicago department store Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company.[3][2] They had a son, Albert Merritt Billings, who died in 1926;[2] Billings endowed the Billings Memorial Hospital in Chicago as tribute to him.[3] They also had a daughter, who married Halstead Van der Poel.[3]

During his years in Chicago, Billings was the founder and a charter member of the Chicago Athletic Club, served on the West Park Commission, and on the board of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.[3]

In 1901, at the age of 40, Billings, who had inherited a controlling interest in Peoples Gas, but had retired from the day-to-day running of the company,[4] moved to Manhattan, New York City, where he and his family lived in a townhouse on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street.[6]

Billings, who owned 75 racing or trotting horses, would later build an extensive estate in Upper Manhattan, on the site of what is now Fort Tryon Park, but first built a 25,000-square-foot (2,300 m2) stable there, at the cost of $200,000. It was completed in 1903. The stable, which was 250 feet (76 m) long and 125 feet (38 m) wide and two stories tall "with numerous towers and cupolas", had 22 box stalls and 9 straight stalls, a 75-foot (23 m) outdoor training ring, a 40-foot (12 m)-by-50-foot (15 m) sleigh room, feed rooms, a hayloft, and a 5,000 bushel zinc-lined granary. It also had a gymnasium, a blacksmith shop with forge, a trophy room to display Billings' awards from the amateur races he won, and two five-room suites of living quarters. The interior was designed in oak and Georgia pine. The stable had steam heat, electric light, and hot water, all provided by its dynamo room. About twenty-five men were employed.[7]

Nearby the stable was a 14-room 50-foot (15 m)-by-100-foot (30 m) lodge for guests, which featured an 80-foot (24 m)-tall observation tower.[7]

The site was conveniently near to the Harlem Speedway, built in 1894-89[8][9][10] for the exclusive use of riders on horseback and horse-drawn carriages. It ran from West 155th Street to Dyckman Street. Rich New Yorkers used the Speedway to train their horses and size up those of their friends and competitors.[8][11] The Speedway was eventually paved and became the beginning of the Harlem River Drive.[11][12]

Dinner on horseback[edit]

Billings' horse party

Billings wished to celebrate the completion of his trotting stable, and his selection to be the head of the New York Equestrian Club, by giving a dinner for 36 of his male horse-riding friends in the stable on March 29, 1903. He engaged the noted restaurateur Louis Sherry to cater the event, but to avoid reporters who staked out the estate after news of the dinner had spread, Billings changed the venue at Sherry's suggestion to the grand ballroom of Sherry's restaurant at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. The ballroom had been decorated to look like an English country estate, complete with imitation brooks. Wanting he and his guests to be mounted on horses while they ate, the floor was covered with turf. The horses, which were docile animals rented from nearby riding academies, were brought to the fourth-floor ballroom via the freight elevator. The participants, arranged in a circle, ate from specially built silver trays which were attached to their saddles and drank through rubber tubes connected to iced bottles of champagne in their saddlebags. The waiters, one for each diner, served the numerous courses dressed as if grooms at a fox hunt. The 32 docile horses were each attended by an elaborately dressed groom, and near the end of the evening elaborate troughs filled with oats were brought in for the horses to eat from.[13][14][1][15]

The evening concluded with a vaudeville show.[15]

The $50,000 bill for the dinner (equivalent to $1,394,259 in 2018) included the cost of a photographer from the celebrated Byron Company to document the event.[13][14]

Two days later, Billings officially opened his new stable with a luncheon for members of the Equestrian Club and other wealthy horsemen and dignitaries from around the country. Some rode there on horseback, but most traveled by elevated train to the 155th Street station located at the Harlem Speedway, and were conveyed to the stable by automobiles.[15]

Billings sells his horses[edit]

In 1903, Billings, who was a prominent member of the Jockey Club and was part-owner of the Jamaica Race Course in Jamaica, Queens,[2] was regarded as a "Grand Marshal" of harness racing ("trotting" or "matinee racing"),[16] but in November 1905, just two years after his stable was completed, he sold his stock of horses at Madison Square Garden, saying that he proposed to go abroad for a few years. Billings held back only three horses from the sale, plus one that was withdrawn because it was lame. The sale of 18 horses brought in $46,270, with the top seller bringing in $10,500.[17]


Tryon Hall, the Manhattan estate of C.K.G. Billings

Tryon Hall[edit]

The Billings' mansion at West 196th Street and Fort Washington Road[15] was designed by Guy Lowell, who enlarged the lodge which had been built as part of the stables. It was organized around a central courtyard with a fountain. Landscape architect Charles Downing Lay designed the grounds. Billings called it "Tryon Hall", after Fort Tryon, which had been located there, itself named after Sir William Tryon, who was the last Governor of the English colony of New York.[6][18] The mansion stood on one of the highest points in Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River to the west, and the Broadway Valley to the east.

By 1907, Billings, his wife, two children, and 23 servants had moved from their Manhattan townhouse into the massive Louis XIV-style chateau, now their full-time residence. It included an observatory tower topped by an octagonal room, which had a 360-degree unobstructed view. The estate had a casino with a swimming pool, squash court and bowling alley for entertaining, as well as Billings' extensive stables and an area to exercise his horses.[6][19]

The entrance to the estate was originally at the top of the hill, approached via Riverside Drive and West 181st Street, to Fort Washington Road, but the upper part of Riverside Drive was completed at about the same time as Billings' mansion, and he wanted a driveway which connected the mansion directly to that section of the roadway. Unfortunately, there was a steep 100-foot (30 m) cliff between the road and the mansion. Billings' hired the firm of Buchman & Fox to find a solution, which they did: granite was removed from the cliff to allow a passage for a zig-zagging driveway, and the stone was then used both as a retaining wall, and for the construction of an arched viaduct that the driveway initially passed through. The arched passage became known as the "Billings Arcade". The entrance to the driveway had granite pillars that were 16 feet (4.9 m) tall, which supported 20-foot (6.1 m) tall gates which were 10 feet (3.0 m) wide.[6]

The entire driveway project took a year for over a hundred workers to complete, at the cost of $250,000. It raised the overall cost of the estate to more than $2 million.[6] The Billings Arcade still remains as part of Fort Tryon Park, as does part of the driveway, now used as a pedestrian path. Another remnant is a gardener's cottage, originally a gatehouse for the estate's upper entrance, now used for park offices. The gateposts of the driveway entrance to the estate were refurbished in 2017. The driveway no longer connects to the roadway which was once Riverside Drive and is now the northbound side of the Henry Hudson Parkway.

In the nearby Hudson River, Billings kept his 232-foot (71 m) yacht, Vanadis which was built in 1908.[20]

Billings sold his Tryon Hall estate in 1917 to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.. His family had already moved into an apartment on Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street, which has 21 rooms, and for which he paid $20,000 a year in rent. Rockefeller was assembling parcels for the creation of a park designed by the Olmsted Brothers which he planned to develop and then give to the city – this eventually became Fort Tryon Park. As part of Rockefeller's plan, he was going to tear down Tryon Hall but was held back by popular sentiment. During World War I, he offered use of the house to the U.S. government as a hospital, and was prepared to outlay $500,000 for the conversion, but this did not happen. After that, the mansion was rented to Nicolas C. Partos of the Partola Manufacturing Company, at first for the summer of 1918, but then extending for years. Partos and his family was still in residence when the building burned down on March 7, 1926.[18][21][6][22]


After leaving Tryon Hall, Billings moved to another grand estate he had built, this one called "Farnsworth", named for his mother's family,[2] and located in Locust Valley, New York, on Long Island. It was again designed by Guy Lowell, this time in the Georgian Revival style, with the landscaping of the extensive grounds designed by Andrew Robeson Sargent of Boston. The buildings alone on the estate cost $1,550,000 in 1915. Although Georgian in style, Lowell designed it to be similar to an Italian villa, in that the mansion was built around a patio at its center. The house featured 11 master bedrooms with 9 baths and 19 servants bedrooms with 4 baths. The appointments were expensive and luxurious.[23]

Despite the grandeur of the surrounding, Billings did not stay in Farnsworth any longer than he had in Tryon Hall. With World War 1 raging, and his health failing, Farnsworth began to sell off his East Coast properties in preparation for moving to California.[23][3]

Billings moored his yacht Vanadis in the nearby waters. In 1916, he had sold the original Vanadis to Morton F. Plant in return for the smaller yacht Kanawha, after the Vanadis struck the steamship Bunker Hill, killing two people.[2][20] In 1924, Billings ordered a second, larger yacht – 246 feet (75 m) long – which he also named Vanadis.[24] This ship is now anchored at Riddarholmen in Stockholm, and is now the hotel Mälardrottningen, with the ship rechristened as Lady Hutton, after the actress Barbara Hutton.[25][26][27]

Other estates[edit]

At various times, Billings also owned a 5,000-acre (2,000 ha) estate on the James River in Virginia called Curles Neck Farm, which he bought in 1913 and developed into one of the country's prime horse-breeding facilities. He had another estate in Colorado Springs, Colorado and a summer home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.[6][2]

When he moved to Santa Barbara, Billings had a mansion built in the hills of that city, which he called "Asombrosa". It was damaged by an earthquake in the mid-1930s, and he had another, smaller, house built nearby.[3]

Later life[edit]

C.K.G. Billings with his horse Lou Dillon in 1903

In 1911, Billings became the Chairman of the Board of Union Carbide and Carbon Company – a company he helped to found[3] – a position he held until his death in 1937. His mother died in 1913, leaving him $450,000; at that time his net worth was estimated to be $30 million,[2] equivalent to $761 million in 2018. At one time he was reported to be one of the five richest men in the United States.[3]

Around 1915, Billings – a member of the Turf and Field Club at Belmont Park[3] – was said to be the owner of the fastest stallion, mare, and gelding in the world. He was also part-owner of the Kentucky Derby-winning Omar Khayyam.[2] He was also the principal investor in the Billings Parks race track in Memphis, Tennessee, which eventually closed because of anti-betting laws passed by that state. At one time he bought a controlling interest in the Kentucky Breeder's Association, which prevented that organization from going under. The association was reorganized, and Billings later donated his stock to the group.[3]

Billings moved to Santa Barbara, California in 1917, but maintained ownership of "Farnsworth" on Long Island, where he kept some of his horses.[2] Others were kept at the Glenville Race Track in Cleveland, Ohio.[3]

In 1926, Billings sold his art collection, which included works by Jean-Charles Cazin, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, John Crome, Charles-François Daubigny, Jules Dupré, Charles Jacque, Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, and Félix Ziem for $401,300,[28] in 1928 he realized $4 million for the sale of the Johnson Building, located on Exchange Street from Broad Street to New Street. He was also part of a group of investors who built the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, which opened in 1930.[2]

After being in bad health for ten years, Billings was reported to be seriously ill on May 3, 1937, and he died from pneumonia on his estate at Billings Park, near Santa Barbara, on May 6. At the time of his death, he was still the chairman of the board of the Union Carbide Carbon Company, and was described as "one of America's wealthiest men" and "Santa Barbara's wealthiest and most philanthropic citizen."[29][2]

The funeral for Billings was held in Santa Barbara on May 8, and he was later buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.[3]

Despite the reputation which has attached to Billings in the aftermath of the horseback dinner he was memorialized quite differently:

Personally Mr. Billings was a man of retiring, modest, nature, who shunned the limelight except when driving or riding one of his horses upon the race course, always dressed very quietly, and in every way made himself as inconspicuous as possible. He was happiest when surrounded by the small circle of intimate friends that he best-loved ... He was the loyalest of friends and when he had once given his good will to a man it was never withdrawn unless it had been abused. His benefactions and gifts were boundless and in them, he took the greatest pleasure. In all social relations he was the reverse of pompous, arrogant or domineering, was democratic and genial and, that rarest of all things—always the same admirable and wonderful character in every spot and place, at all times and seasons and under all circumstances.[3]



  1. ^ a b Wallace, Mike (2017), Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 468n15, ISBN 978-0-19-511635-9
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Staff (May 7, 1937) "C. K. G. Billings, Noted Sportsman" (obituary) The New York Times
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Hervey, John Lewis (May 12 & 19, 1937) "C. K. G. Billings: 1861 - 1937: In Memorium"[permanent dead link] Harness Horse
  4. ^ a b Rush, Paul (January 11, 2009) "The Horseback Dinner" Paul Rush New York Stories
  5. ^ "Our History" Peoples Energy website
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Miller, Tom (October 21, 2013) "The Lost Billings Mansion -- 'Tryon Hall'" Daytonian in Manhattan
  7. ^ a b Staff (March 22, 1903) "The Light Harness Horse: Luxury Stables for C. K. G. Billings's Blooded Stock" The New York Times
  8. ^ a b Gray, Christopher (July 13, 1997). "A Roadway Built for the Elite to Trot Out Their Rigs". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 15, 2017.
  9. ^ Staff (February 6, 1894). "Cheers from the Unemployed: 1,500 Saw Mayor Gilroy Begin Work on the Speedway". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 15, 2017.
  10. ^ Staff (July 3, 1898). "Harlem Speedway Opened; Pronounced by Horsemen to be the Finest Driveway for Light Speeding in the Country". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 15, 2017.
  11. ^ a b Robinson, Lauren (February 28, 2012). "How Harlem River Speedway Became Harlem River Drive". Museum of the City of New York.
  12. ^ Staff (December 4, 1919). "Autos to Use Speedway: Gallatin Will Open Harlem Drive to Passenger Machines Today". The New York Times. Retrieved July 16, 2017.
  13. ^ a b Pollak, Michael (August 15, 2004) "F.Y.I.: For an Appetizer, Hay" The New York Times
  14. ^ a b Bryk, William (March 30, 2005) "Banquet on Horseback" New York Sun
  15. ^ a b c d Staff (March 30, 1903) "Luncheon in a Stable" The New York Times
  16. ^ "The Rise, Decline and Fall(?) of Matinee Racing" Western Reserve Matinee Club
  17. ^ Staff (November 24, 1905) "CKG Billings Horses sold for Big Prices" The New York Times
  18. ^ a b Kuhn, Jonathan "Fort Tryon Park" in Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. (2010), The Encyclopedia of New York City (2nd ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 473, ISBN 978-0-300-11465-2
  19. ^ Ferree, Barr (1911) Fort Tryon Hall: The Residence of C. K. G. Billings, Esq.: A Descriptive and Illustrative Catalogue Issued Privately by the Owner Washington Heights, New York.
  20. ^ a b Vanadis" Scottish Built Shps
  21. ^ Capraro, Douglas (June 10, 2014) "The Remains of Fort Tryon Park’s Turn of the Century Mansion Near the Cloisters" Untapped Cities
  22. ^ Staff (March 7, 1926) "Billings Mansion Destroyed by Fire" The New York Times
  23. ^ a b "'Farnsworth' The Long Island Home of C. K. G. Billings, Esq., at Locust Valley — A Country Estate in Every Respect Perfectly Appointed on The Country House website (September 27, 2013)
  24. ^ M/S Vanadis
  25. ^ Hammond, Margo (November 23, 1988). "All Aboard: Luxury Yacht Rocks Gently at Stockholm Harbor" (PDF). The Milwaukee Journal. pp. 33, 35. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  26. ^ Snow, Brook Hill (March 15, 1987). "Off The Beaten Path The Lady Hutton, One Of The World's Largest Luxury Yachts, Is Now An Elegant Hotel In Downtown Stockholm". Sun Sentinel. Stockholm, Sweden. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
  27. ^ Vanadis to Lady Hutton, Kajsa Karlsson, (1987)
  28. ^ Staff (1926) Famous Masterpieces opf the French, Dutch, and English Schools: The Collection of C. K. G. Billings (catalog) American Art Association
  29. ^ Staff (May 3, 1937) "C. K. G. Billings Seriously Ill" The New York Times
  30. ^ Renner, James (2007) Images of America: Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-5478-5
  31. ^ Corban, Anthony, CKG Billings Review August 2003, harnesslink.com
  32. ^ Knox, Tammy, Billings Amateur Trot makes stop at Hoosier Park May 2010, ustrotting.com

External links[edit]