After half a century of neglect, “America’s Greatest Forgotten Garden” makes a most memorable impression. Located in Yonkers, the Untermyer Gardens have been undergoing restoration for less than a decade. Sprawling over 43 acres, the verdant, transcendent space is an example of Gilded Age horticulture at its finest.
The Untermyer Gardens were commissioned by Samuel Untermyer (1858-1940), a high-profile lawyer, Zionist activist, generous philanthropist and very enthusiastic Horticulturalist from New York. Untermyer had purchased the territory from Samuel Tilden, former New York State Governor, in 1899.
Charmed by Beaux-Arts architect William Welles Bosworth (a Rockefeller favorite), Untermyer hired the famous landscapist to craft “the grandest garden in the world.” The estate known as Greystone was a major undertaking: 60 gardeners, 60 greenhouses, 150 acres, one 29-room mansion, and even a living sundial. The gardens were open to the public only on Tuesdays, and once, in 1939, counted 30,000 visitors.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Before his death in 1940, Untermyer tried to pass the gardens onto the state – but Robert Moses, the infamous city builder, refused. The gardens were donated instead to the City of Yonkers in 1946, but fell into disrepair because of the massive costs of horticultural and building maintenance.
The decaying, abandoned park soon gained notoriety for one of the century’s biggest murder scares: “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz apparently participated in a satanic group that met in the park. In the 1970s, strange and disturbing incidents were reported: torch flames, sinister chanting, and mutilated and skinned dogs. To this day, satanic whispers still linger on the estate, at least according to the Yonkers Ghost Investigators. Their webpage features “electronic voice phenomena,” including nine recorded at Untermyer Park.
In the past decade, the park has gone from forgotten to restored. Architect Stephen Byrns, a former commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, visited the gardens in the 1990s. He was inspired to found the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy in 2011 in partnership with the Yonkers Parks Department. Now, this nonprofit organization tends to the 43 acres that remain. One of the main attractions is the Walled Garden (pictured below), inspired by Indo-Persian gardens of Antiquity, with quadrants and octagonal towers.
The Temple of Love is a fanciful temple construction atop a rocky outcrop. Carlo Davite, a Genoese stone mason, created the structure, which involved waterfalls, a spillway, and hundreds of little spaces for plants. Apparently Mr. Untermyer liked to nap up in the Temple. On a grimmer note, satanic sacrifices were thought to be performed here, renamed by participants the “eagle’s nest.” Today the water streams are back in place and the Temple of Love is once again a lovely site to let one’s mind wander.
The Temple of Sky in the Walled Garden (pictured above) is an especially elegant spot, with 14 Corinthian columns and a roofless ‘ceiling’ of clouds. Don’t forget to look down, however: the mosaic tiled floor bears an image of the Medusa.
Other details from the gardens include elegant Italianate stone steps that descend to an unbeatable view of the Hudson River. Additionally, 100 Japanese cedars have been restored – as Bosworth had originally intended in his designs – in 2015.