Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Arrowhead Inn, 177th Street, Washington Heights

The pine trees surprised me in this little Manhattan park. Pines are not the typical trees in the city, and when I saw them in a park in Washington Heights, I wondered if Ben Riley saw them too, when he was here. Did the pines greet his visitors – the celebrities, the politicians, the wealthy crowd of a century ago – like they greeted me now?

Ben Riley was the reason I visited the park by the George Washington Bridge. I wanted to see the site of his once-famous Arrowhead Inn.

Pine trees between 177th-178th Street, west of Cabrini.

Pines live long lives, hundreds of years even, but on this plot of land, Ben Riley’s Arrowhead Inn was built and demolished in the early 1900's, apartment buildings were built and demolished, and the plot was eventually severed in half to make way for the ramps to and from the George Washington Bridge. Were the trees saved through all that? I like to think so, but I doubt it. I’ll return to the park to measure the pines and calculate their age and then we'll know for sure. 

But, for now, let's get back to the reason for the visit to the park.

Ben Riley's original Arrowhead Inn was in Saratoga, New York. There were five Arrowhead restaurants all, one after another, over the course of five decades, and his first place in Washington Heights was on Haven Avenue at 177th Street. 

The inn opened in 1908 on Haven, but Ben Riley advertised using the nearest major street, Fort Washington Avenue, which looked like this at the time:

The photo above, from around 1910, is of Fort Washington Avenue looking to the south. The Arrowhead Inn was two blocks to the right (west). The sign on the right of the photo, behind the lamppost, is a "for sale" sign, and I'm assuming it was for the plot of land there.

Ben Riley opened the inn in a house he leased from Benjamin Altman that was previously owned by William H. Guion, of the shipping line Guion and Company. Here's a photo of the house that served as the first Arrowhead Inn in Washington Heights, on a hill above the Hudson River.

Photo by Eleanor Booth Simmons. From the New York Public Library.

Single-family homes are long gone from the neighborhood now, and in place of the Guion house is this big apartment building, built in the 1920s:

Haven Avenue at 177th Street.
When Ben Riley opened the Arrowhead Inn, the subway (the line which is now the 1 train) was running several blocks to the east, and the neighborhood around the subway station was rapidly developing. But the area around Ben Riley’s place on the west side was still bucolic. His customers likely traveled by coach or motorcar, or by passenger train to the nearby railroad station along the Hudson at 177th Street, but unlikely by subway, to dine at the Arrowhead Inn on the long, leisurely dinners of that era.

Ben Riley’s specialty – frog legs – was all the rage at the time. He boasted that “more frogs’ legs were consumed at Arrowhead Inn than at any other place in America.” The New York Herald wrote that the Arrowhead served meals “different from that of any other suburban restaurant around New York” with “six huge charcoal fires flaming as they would in a blacksmith’s shop." That’s no surprise since Ben had a unique training in the restaurant business early on from George Crum in Saratoga. Crum was a part Native American and he worked as a scout for tourists before opening his own elite restaurant catering to the gambling and racing crowd in Saratoga. Ben Riley worked as a scout in Saratoga too, and later took over Crum's elite eatery before opening the original Arrowhead. Riley knew the appeal of a specialty menu and a destination off the beaten path, and he became a well-known restaurant man.

The business was in Ben’s blood even before he met George Crum. As a teenager, Ben worked in his father’s tavern, a place his grandfather established on land in Saratoga his great-grandfather was granted by King George III. 

The crowds came to the Arrowhead Inn in Washington Heights for five years, and when Ben Riley’s lease was up on the house in 1913, he decided to build a new and even better inn across the street. The owner of the old house, Benjamin Altman, intended to build an apartment building on the plot (the apartment building shown above), but that didn’t happen for another decade or so. In the meantime, the house was home to the cops of the neighborhood, and we’ll talk about that another time, but it’s interesting to note for now that the police were close by the inn and they were accommodated well.

The new Arrowhead Inn was “considerably larger than the old one and with more accommodations, including sunken gardens and a restaurant to seat about 1000.” The work started in December 1913 and the new inn was ready for business in the spring.

Postcard of the second Arrowhead Inn of Washington Heights, from my private collection.

One of the first events held at the new Arrowhead was a dinner for the local property owners. On April 30, 1914, the 400 guests didn't dine on frog legs, but they did have Saratoga chips, what we now call potato chips. George Crum, the man Riley worked for as a teen, claimed to be the inventor of the Saratoga chip, and Riley kept the item on his own menu. The banquet also included river trout, sweetmeats, grilled spring chicken, ice cream, cigars, and champagne.

Arrowhead Menu, April 30, 1914. From the New York Public Library.

Some of the topics of discussion among the property owners at the dinner were the five-cent subway fare and the plan to pump fresh water into the floating baths in the Hudson as the river water was polluted.

The movers and shakers also talked about the need for a subway to run up Central Park West to Washington Heights. That subway would eventually be built, and the 175th Street subway station of the A train would be just a few short blocks from the Arrowhead site, though the inn would be gone by then.

The coming of the desired subway line to the west side of Washington Heights meant that real estate speculation spiked. The properties of the country mansions were sold off in big lots to builders putting up large apartment houses. Ben Riley sold his block of land in a cash deal to builders in October 1923, and construction plans for building six-story apartment houses on the site were underway in 1924. Ben Riley opened a new Arrowhead Inn in Riverdale, Bronx.

Here's a photo taken of the Washington Heights Arrowhead Inn, from the corner of 177th and Northern Avenue (now Cabrini Blvd) just a few months before the block was sold to developers:

Arrowhead Inn, gelatin silver print. June 16, 1923. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. 

And here is the same vantage point, 91 years later:
Image from Google.com.

The ground where the Arrowhead Inn stood for almost a decade as a destination for the upper-class became the foundation for an entire city block of apartment buildings, bordered by 177th, 178th, Haven Avenue, and Northern Avenue (now Cabrini Blvd).

"Plate 170, Part of Section 8" Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. 
From the New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1925. 

A few years later, the construction of the George Washington Bridge at 179th Street and the expansion of the highways along the river took more land. The apartment buildings that replaced the Arrowhead Inn are gone, as is half the plot. It was cut diagonally, with the road built on one side and the playground on the other.

Site of the Arrowhead Inn, now cut in half diagonally. 
Photo from 177th and Haven Avenue looking northeast.

The funny thing is, the part of the block that is left, where the little park and the pines trees are, is shaped a bit like an arrowhead.

Source: Google.com

Follow up to this post, with more information about the pine trees on the lot, is here.

Sources are found here.


  1. Great! I live in the neighborhood and enjoy this blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for your visit and for you comment. Uptown is full of great stories that I plan to explore on the blog.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I have a wonderful old (1910s? 1920s?) souvenir of the Anglo-American Grand Hotel Pompei (Italy) that mentions the hotel's owner and manager as "Paul Cimmino, formerly of the Arrowhead Inn, New-York City". Apparently the Arrowhead had a big enough reputation that travelers in southern Italy might be impressed by the mention.


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