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Izaya Abdurakhmanov

MHC 100 Arts in NYC

History of Fort Tryon Park

Fort Tryon Park, home of The Cloisters Museum, is a site to behold for itself. Located in Washington Heights at one of the highest points in New York City, the park epitomizes beauty with its magnificent gardens, man-made landscapes, broad views, and high walls. One can see the Hudson River, the New Jersey Palisades, and the George Washington Bridge all from this single location. It is a place of friendly gathering where people can stroll through the gardens, sit and enjoy the view, or run and play. There is something to enjoy for people of all ages whether it be nature, history, architecture, or art; the park has it all. With all of this said, there is a rich history behind Fort Tryon Park which explains how it became the beauteous sight it is today.

Let us start from the 17th and 18th centuries where the area now known as Fort Tryon Park was discovered by Europeans and then used in war. Over three hundred years ago, the park was a  heavily forested area upon high ground where a Native American tribe called the Weckquaesgeek lived (nycgovparks). The tribe inhabited the land up until the late 1600s when the Dutch settled in the area and removed the inhabitants (Renner). After the Dutch colonists, came the English colonists, who as we all know ended up revolting against Great Britain in the American Revolution. This ties in to Fort Tryon’s history because the area was used in the Battle of Fort Washington during 1776 against Hessian (German mercenaries) troops (nycgovparks). Fort Tryon was not actually a fort but rather one of several posts along the Hudson River which was used as northern defense (Renner). This series of posts was dubbed “Fort Washington” hence the name of the battle (fort tryon park trust). The soldiers of the Continental Army were only able to withstand against the enemy troops temporarily before losing and being forced to retreat (Renner). It was then that the area was titled “Fort Tryon” by the British in honor of the Major General and last British governor of the New York colony, Sir William Tryon (nycgovparks). Fort Tryon is therefore known and remembered as the site of a loss for the American troops which is quite unexpected given a first look at the grand and beautiful appearance of the landmark.

During the Battle of Fort Washington, one of the earliest brave acts of American female patriotism was observed. In the battle, First Pennsylvania Militia artillery man, John Corbin was killed and his wife, Margaret Corbin, took his place manning the cannon ( Renner). Due to this display of courage, there is a plaque in the park commemorating her bravery and a whole circle and drive named after her near the park’s entrance (fort tryon park trust). Throughout the park there are also plaques honoring all the soldiers who fought against the Hessian troops. It is very remarkable that we get to stand on the ground where acts of bravery and patriotism occurred and the fact that such events are remembered through time is even more striking.

Enough about the historical significance of Fort Tryon Park. Let us now discuss how the park actually came to be built. Taking a huge leap from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, Fort Tryon had a number of fancy residences located within its area, with one of the most notable being the Tryon Hill Mansion owned by  Cornelius K.G. Billings (nycgovparks). Billings owned 25 acres of land and spent two million dollars in renovation (Renner).  In fact, it was the wealth of this man that allowed for the monument memorializing Margaret Corbin to be built in Fort Tryon (nycgovparks). John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the extremely rich oil industrialist  John D. Rockefeller, bought Billings’s mansion in 1917 to initiate his plan to transform Fort Tryon into a park. He hired the Olmstead brothers, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. and John Charles Olmstead, as the architects for designing the park (Renner).

Over four years were spent reshaping the area’s landscape. The gardens and rocky terrains were actually designed by the Olmsteads despite their natural appearance. Adding to that, walkways were crafted so that park goers could enjoy long walks through the gardens where to the left and right were colorful plants to observe. Terraces were built so that they could not only look aesthetically pleasing from the outside, but also so that people had a higher ground to watch the wide surrounding of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades. Walls and Pillars were incorporated as well to give the park the image of a tall, strong fort. The park began getting built in 1927 and finally in 1935, Rockefeller opened the 67 acre park to the public. Rockefeller donated the park to New York City and even bought the New Jersey Palisades to ensure that the magnificent view would be kept for the public to take delight in (forttryonparktrust). In 1938, the Cloisters were added to Fort Tryon Park so that various works of medieval art could be on display for people to see. This section gained landmark status in 1974 (nycgovparks).  Several elements from European monasteries are present within the Cloisters which give it a rather dark yet artistic feel. The Cloisters are now a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ironically,  Fort Tryon Park itself became a New York City landmark in 1983, nine years after Cloisters (Renner).
Fort Tryon Park is not only a beautiful and grandiose landmark, but it is also a site of historical significance. From being inhabited by Native Americans to having a Revolutionary War battle fought within its walls, the park proves to have a rather fascinating past. Thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. And the Olmstead Brothers architectural firm, the historical site became the majestic park it is today. Those who visit this great place have the opportunity to enjoy the vivid gardens, impressive views, rocky architecture, as well as the Cloisters museum. Seeing the park just once is not even enough to take all 67 acres  in.

Works Cited

“Fort Tryon Park.” New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/forttryonpark/highlights/12315>.
“History of Fort Tryon Park.” Fort Tryon Park Trust. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <http://www.forttryonparktrust.org/park/history.html>.
Renner, James. “Fort Tryon Park.” Washington Heights & Inwood Online – Manhattan, New York City. May 2003. Web. 17 Dec. 2010. <http://www.washington-heights.us/history/archives/fort_tryon_park_79.html>.

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