NYC Horse History: Durland's Riding Academy

Posted by Aaron Taylor on

New York City was once an equestrian paradise, with hundreds of stables and more than 200,000 steeds residing within the boroughs. Among the grandest of the riding facilities was Durland's Riding Academy.

In the late 1800s, Durland's operated from smack in the middle of Columbus Circle. The building (pictured at left) had luxurious rooms where riders would wait for their mounts to be saddled, and boasted a cement water trough outside its main door where horses could grab a slurp after a gallop in the park.

Around 1900, the site was deemed structurally unsafe. Owner George Durland, a horseman who moved to the Columbus Circle area from Jamaica, Queens, commissioned Henry F. Kilburn--a Civil War veteran and architect known for designing churches--to build a new, even more posh riding academy on West 66th Street. It cost the equivalent to $5 million in today's dollars to build and was so important that it reportedly spurred the opening of another entrance to Central Park West on its cross street.

The new stable and riding arena opened in March 1901, boasting a full roster of well-heeled clients including Astors, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and the like (could they have been Miller's/Manhattan Saddlery customers?), who enjoyed the cavernous riding pavilion, three-story arched windows and huge spectator and music galleries, as well as a robust activity schedule of specialty park rides, mounted games, horse (and dog) shows, equestrian exhibitions and even polo.

Durland's was considered a chief competitor to West 89th Street's Claremont Stables. In fact the horses from each facility wore distinctive bridle browbands (Claremont was blue, Durland's was checkered) so they could be differentiated on Central Park's paths.

The Durland's stable had at least two sizeable fires. The first, in 1902, was the subject of one of Thomas Edison's earliest moving pictures. Another, in 1910, killed nine horses on the top floor. A New York Times article about the 1910 fire stated that among the 600 animals successfully evacuated were four sent by Queen Wilhelmina of Holland for the annual National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.

Automobiles gradually replaced horses in NYC and Durland's went into decline. American Broadcasting Company purchased the property in 1949 and converted it to television studios that hosted, among other programming, the Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960 and the Soupy Sales Show. Over time, ABC engaged in so much demolition, resurfacing and restoration that the building's equestrian origins have become nearly indistinguishable today.

Next time you are in this West Side neighborhood, take a look at 7 West 66th Street. The bricked-in arched windows may be the only vestige left of the facade's equestrian past. Then head over to our shop on 24th Street where NYC equestrian life is still thriving!

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