Formal Dinner… on Horseback

How would you celebrate the opening of your stables? A dinner, perhaps?

Here is how Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, an American industrialist tycoon, philanthropist, and a noted horseman and horse breeder did it. On March 28, 1903, he gave a lavish 14-course dinner for a small select group of people, namely thirty-five members of the Equestrian Club. The venue for the event was a fashionable Sherry’s located at the time at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. The dinner took place in the Rococo ballroom that was transformed for the occasion into an English country estate. The illusion was achieved by draping the walls in canvas depicting pastoral scenes, and covering the floors with turf.

The guests weren’t seated at the tables but instead, playing out the English hunting scene, were mounted on life horses. Even though all the invitees were experienced riders, each horse was attended by a waiter dressed as a groom at a hunting party.

It’s fair to ask how technically one eats an elaborate dinner while mounted on a horse? The answer is obvious: dinner was served on specially built silver trays attached to the saddles! The meal was washed down with champagne sipped through rubber tubes from champagne bottles kept in ice in the saddlebags.

C.K.G. Billings Horseback Dinner at Sherry’s. by Byron Company, 1903
Sherry’s, Phot. in the Ball Room. by Byron Company, 1903

Towards the end of the meal, the horses joined the riders in epicurean delights, being fed tasty oats. The equestrian tables were dismissed at the end of the meal and left the building via the freight elevator.

Two days later, Billings officially opened his new stable at what is now Fort Tryon Park (196th Street and Fort Washington Road) with a luncheon for members of the Equestrian Club. It was served on regular tables with no horses in attendance. Some guests rode there on horseback, but most chose to arrive via an elevated train or an automobile.

In 1917, Billings sold his beloved estate to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who created beautiful Fort Tyron Park. Billings’ magnificent Louis XIV-style château,  sadly, perished in fire in 1926 giving way to The Cloisters – a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses the museum’s medieval art collection.

Fort Tryon Park. Looking north between Riverside Drive / and Ft. Washington Avenue / showing C.K.G. Billings residence / Hudson River in distance.
C. K. G. Billings Residence. Front gate by Wurts Bros, dates 1907-1926

C K G Billings is well remembered for promoting the sport of trotting, also known as “harness racing” or “matinee racing” as well as for one of the more eccentric parties ever given.

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