Talk about the unbridled opulence of the Gilded Age.
In 1903, wealthy industrialist and equestrian Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings opened a private 25,000-square-foot, two-story trotting stable on 196th Street at Fort Washington Road (what is now Fort Tryon Park).
The $200,000 stable featured stucco walls, a shingled roof, and 22 stalls (each with a brass plaque for the name of the equine occupant). The luxury stable housed about 20 carriages, 33 horses, a gymnasium, trophy room, sleigh room, lounging rooms, and living quarters for two families.
To celebrate the opening of his stables, Billings had planned to host an exclusive stag formal dinner at the stable, catered by well-known restaurateur and “society caterer” Louis Sherry. Word of the dinner leaked out, however, and crowds of reporters gathered, hoping to see the stable and wealthy guests.
Billings quietly changed plans, and rented the grand Rococo ballroom on the fourth floor of Louis Sherry’s, a 12-story restaurant with ballrooms and residential suites on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.
When the 36 guests, all members of the Equestrian Club, arrived on March 28 at 8 p.m., they found the grand Rocco ballroom decorated as a woodland garden, with trees and shrubbery, real birds, a huge harvest moon hanging from the ceiling, and sod on the floor. The guests mounted well-trained rented horses and faced each other in a circle.
They ate from custom-made dining trays covered in crisp linen that were attached to their saddles. And they sipped champagne through rubber tubes from iced bottles in their saddlebags.
Waiters dressed as grooms in scarlet coats and white breeches — one waiter to a rider — served 14 courses. The menu that evening featured Truite au Bleu, lamb, guinea hen, and flaming peaches. Real grooms stood at each horse’s head to reduce the risk of tossed trays, food, and riders. At the end of the evening, the waiter-grooms brought in elaborate feeding troughs filled with oats so the horses could eat with their riders.
And how did the horses get up to the fourth floor? By freight elevator, of course! At the end of the evening, a vaudeville show took place to entertain the guests while the horses were lowered back down to street level.
Forty years prior to the horseback dinner, the site of Louis Sherry’s was the scene of a horrific fire at the Colored Orphan Asylum.
Founded in 1836, the 4-story orphanage extended from 43rd to 44th Street and housed hundreds of African-American children. On July 13, 1863, during the Draft Riots, the orphanage was burned to the ground. The 233 children in residence were all led to safety by the matron of the home.