“From the time I could understand anything, I have regarded flowers as an inseparable part of daily life.” – Samuel J. Untermyer, in an interview with Better Homes and Gardens, February 1928
Imagine a place far from the madding crowds of New York City, yet close enough to visit in the space of a single afternoon. There is such a place, just a brief, scenic train ride away in nearby Yonkers, New York, known as Untermyer Park and Gardens. This 43-acre sanctuary is one of the lesser-known jewels of the beautiful Hudson Valley, and it’s a day tripper’s dream.
First, a little history: Untermyer Gardens was the creation of a wealthy visionary with a passion for horticulture named Samuel J. Untermyer. A highly successful lawyer, civic leader and philanthropist, he purchased Greystone, the estate of former New York governor and presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, at public auction in 1899. He lived there for some years with his wife Minnie, a prominent socialite who was active in the women’s suffrage movement, before hiring Beaux-Arts architect and landscape designer William Welles Bosworth to create what he hoped would become known as “the finest garden in the world.” Inspired variously by the gardens at John D. Rockefeller’s nearby estate, classical Greek and Persian gardens of antiquity and the biblical Garden of Eden, work began around 1916, but the gardens were continuously developed and expanded throughout Mr. Untermyer’s lifetime. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he opened the gardens to the public one day a week, drawing thousands of visitors. In 1946, six years after his death, 16 acres of the sprawling 150-acre property were gifted to the city of Yonkers to be maintained as a public park (in later years, the city purchased additional acreage to expand the park to its present size). Somewhat shockingly, the historic 1860s house itself was razed in 1948, but the park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
So if you make the trip to Greystone these days, what can you expect to see? Situated high on the hills overlooking the Hudson River and hidden from view behind a tall crenellated wall, the formal gardens at Untermyer are a paradise of beauty and tranquility. The floral displays change from year to year, as they did in Mr. Untermyer’s day, but if you visit in the spring, you’ll encounter lawns so green and lush your feet sink into them (yes, you’re allowed to walk on the grass), dotted with flowering cherry and red bud trees with vivid pink blossoms and weeping beeches that tower majestically above the grounds. This year, there are beds of sunny white and yellow tulips bordering the narrow canal* that cuts through the center of this serene landscape, dividing it into quadrants. The irises have already come and gone, but there are still a few pale daffodils to be found, along with trailing wisteria, fragrant purple allium and lilacs in varying hues. The summer brings profusions of roses, hydrangea and anemones, among dozens of other varieties of blooming plants. Benches are scattered throughout the gardens so that visitors can sit and drink in all the beauty in comfort.
Untermyer Park and Gardens are also graced by a number of architectural elements designed to enhance their loveliness. At one end of the central canal, winged sphinxes carved by famed Art Deco sculptor Paul Manship preside over the walled garden from their perch atop a pair of tall marble columns in the classical style. Just behind them, elegant colonnades with intricately patterned mosaic floors offer cooling shade from the afternoon sun. On the west-facing side, a magnificent circular amphitheater that once hosted performances by the likes of Isadora Duncan directs your attention outward to the stunning view of the Hudson and the Palisades. The Vista, a staircase modeled after the one found at Villa d’Este in Italy near Lake Como, descends downward from the formal gardens into a vast expanse of less cultivated natural parkland, flanked by recently-planted rows of Japanese cedar as laid out in Mr. Bosworth’s original design. And if you wander deeper into the park, you’ll eventually come upon a charming “folly” known as the Temple of Love, a gazebo topped with a filigreed wrought-iron dome overlooking a rustic stone waterfall (the original Temple of Love resembled an actual classical temple but was torn down at some point and replaced with the current structure.) This romantic spot has been the site of countless marriage proposals over the years and is a popular backdrop for amateur and professional photographers alike.
Sadly, in the years after Samuel Untermyer’s death in 1940, the gardens fell into a state of neglect and disrepair. Left untended, large areas of the property, including entire gardens, were rapidly reclaimed by nature, and the high outer wall and some of the decorative balustrades and pathways are crumbling in places, although this does little to detract from the charm and beauty of their surroundings. But since 2011, thanks to the efforts of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy, Mr. Untermyer’s pastoral paradise is slowly being restored to its former glory through a series of meticulous renovations, part of an overall renaissance of Yonkers itself. Since Untermyer is non-profit and does not charge an admission fee to visitors, the restoration is being funded jointly by the city of Yonkers, assorted grants and the generosity of individual private donors.
So did Samuel Untermyer succeed in his quest to create the finest garden in the world? Head to Yonkers, bring a picnic and judge for yourself.
*Please Note: The central canal in the walled garden is currently drained while undergoing the final stages of its renovation. Check the website for a daily update.
How to Get There
From Grand Central, take the Hudson Line to Greystone. The Gardens are about a one-mile uphill walk from the station. Admission is free.
Untermyer Park and Gardens, 945 North Broadway, Yonkers, NY
To learn more, visit www.untermyergardens.org