Situated at the top of Eagle Rock Reservation, the building today known as Highlawn Pavilion, and the property around it, has a storied past.
The overlook upon which Highlawn Pavilion sits began as a natural trap dike formation, a glacially cut area where the Palisades Cliffs move inland to form a trap rock cliff above the Atlantic coastal plain. Because of its value as a strategic overlook, early Americans were able to view a vast area of the intervening countryside. General George Washington set up camp here during the Revolutionary War. From this expansive vantage point he was able to ascertain the movement of British troops by the location of their campfires.
In 1903 Eagle Rock Park was used by Thomas Alva Edison to film part of the first ever motion picture, “The Great Train Robbery.”
In 1907 Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, created a preliminary design for the Reservation which was further developed by the Olmsted Firm in the early 1900’s.
Between 1909 and 1911, the “Casino” building, now known as Highlawn Pavilion, was constructed for use as a scenic overlook and refreshment stop. The first floor was without windows as an open-air room, thus the Italian “casino.” The term refers to an Italian-style county dwelling or summer house. As the Reservation became a popular spot where week-enders congregated the Italian term proved to be an accurate description. The second floor was to provide more upscale food service, but this was never established.
In 1917, while the country was at war with Germany, Thomas Edison was appointed chairman of the Naval Review Board. The “Casino” building and its large lawn area, “Highlawn,” were turned over to Mr. Edison and his team of scientists for secret and guarded development of equipment to aid in the war efforts. Among the research were experiments in sound travel to aid submarines in varied weather conditions, early sonar detection equipment, turbine engine development, and experiments with non-corrosive gunpowder.
In the early 1920s, the Reservation was made more accessible as Automobiles regularly bring picnickers to the summit. Automobile enthusiasts of that period held races up the cobblestone roadway of Eagle Rock Avenue with the finish line in Eagle Rock Park, near where Highlawn is situated today.
After World War I, the building again fell into disrepair. By the 1950s, hope was lost and the building was abandoned. To prevent entry to the completely deteriorated upper level, the stairway was sealed by a cement block wall.
By the early 1980s, the entire building had become a safety hazard and it was decided that it should be demolished. When the tremendous cost of this was assessed and rejected, the County Board of Freeholders offered the building to an outside entity for possible restoration and creation of a revenue-generating business. When it was determined that the best possibility could be a restaurant, the Knowles family came forward. This sixth generation restaurant family, and one of the country’s most prominent, took on the challenge.
In addition to addressing major structural problems and installing previously non-existent gas, electric and water lines (there had only been one half-inch water line to supply a drinking fountain), the Knowles decided to expand upon the original Florentine styling of the structure. In December 1985, Harry and Wade Knowles traveled throughout northern Italy seeking design elements and color schemes to determine the décor.
Appropriate antique furniture, garden pieces and lighting fixtures were found and the central “open kitchen” was designed after restaurant “Gianino” in Milan (one of the oldest restaurants in Italy).
Today, Highlawn Pavilion has evolved into a magnificent setting in which to enjoy world-class culinary creations backlit by the extraordinary skyline of Manhattan that has grown up around it.