In the 1920s, Samuel Untermyer's estate, Greystone, was called “America's most spectacular garden” in the national press. That fact drives Stephen Byrns, president of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy, as he leads the restoration of the 43 acres that remain from Untermyer's original 150.
While Untermyer's gardens were a product of his competitiveness — specifically the desire to outdo John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit estate in Pocantico Hills — the reborn Untermyer Park and Gardens represent Byrns' vision for a place of beauty that is accessible to all.
Byrns, an architect and former New York City Landmarks Commissioner, established the nonprofit conservancy in a public-private partnership with the City of Yonkers in 2011. Byrns had visited the walled Persian Garden on the property — the largest Persian Garden in the Western Hemisphere — which had some of the best “bones” an architect could hope to see, but which the City of Yonkers was unable to maintain.
Now, much of the walled garden and the acres beyond it have been returned to their former glory, thanks to the almost $10 million dollars donated to the conservancy since 2011 for the ongoing restoration and management of the site. A record $448,000 was raised during a festive “Sunset Soiree” that marked the conservancy's 10th anniversary on Sept. 14.
Untermyer had owned Greystone from 1899 until his death in 1940. While much of the estate was sold off after his death, the City of Yonkers kept the acreage that included the Persian Garden. For the last decade, Byrns and a small paid staff, with the support of volunteers and donors, have been resurrecting the site, and conducting a growing schedule of tours and programs.
“We expect 100,000 visitors this year,” Byrns said on Sept. 20. “We’re the number-one attraction in Westchester County, according to Tripadvisor.”
Byrns is also proud of the fact that there is no admission charge for Untermyer, which, he said, explains why “We probably have the most diverse visitorship of any garden in America.” Last year, the City of Yonkers doubled the size of the parking lot at the park. “It’s still not adequate,” Byrns said. “We have thousands of visitors on the weekend.”
Yonkers supports some of the park’s capital projects, mows the lawns, pays benefits for three of the seven gardeners, and provides office space for the conservancy in the park’s community center building.
“In terms of operating expenses, I’d say 95 percent comes from private donations,” Byrns said. Those expenses include the day-in, day-out work of planting and maintaining the formal and naturalistic landscapes, tackling costly architectural restorations, and sustaining an oasis of beauty and calm in New York State’s third-largest city.
When Byrns hired the conservancy’s first full-time gardener, Timothy Tilghman, they focused on the neglected Persian Garden. As the years passed, the conservancy raised money for more gardeners and restorations, including the Temple of Love and the Vista, both of which overlook the Hudson River. In addition, a rock and stream garden was unearthed and a former gatehouse was transformed into a ruin garden. With financial aid from the City of Yonkers, the Temple of the Sky reopened this month after being off-limits since early 2020 due to eroding masonry.
The to-do list remains long, including the restoration of a fountain, and turning an area used for storing tree stumps and roots into “The Stumpery.” “It will be artfully arranged into walls and arches, and we’ll plant moss around it,” Byrns said. “It will be a kind of a fantasy garden that will be especially attractive to children.”
The most daunting project will be the Persian Pool, with mosaics depicting sea creatures that crumbled due to the elements and neglect. Restoration will begin in 2022 with $500,000 from New York State, $500,000 from the City of Yonkers, and $700,000 from private fundraising. Byrns expects the work to be completed in 2023.
Meanwhile, the gardens serve as the setting for a range of special events. “We have this outdoor amphitheater, and with Covid, it was the only type of place people could perform,” Byrns said. “So we said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ and we decided to invent a performance series and name it after Minnie Untermyer (the wife of Samuel Untermyer). He built that amphitheater for her. She loved music and dance and poetry.”
On Sept 19, the garden was the scene of a Mughal Garden Party, featuring a performance by the Parul Shah Dance Company. This Sunday, Sept. 26, the last event of the Minnie Untermyer series will be a performance by Lori Belilove and the Isadora Duncan Dance Company. The original Isadora Duncan dancers performed at two parties hosted by the Untermyers in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Untermyer Gardens has also expanded its educational programs, tours, and workshops for adults and for children. There will be a Family Fun Day, with a magician, on Oct. 17.
The conservancy’s partnership with the Yonkers community plays out in other ways. Beyond the park’s walls, they are planting street trees through a program named “Warblers on Warburton.” “There are almost no trees there,” Byrns explained. “It was a neighborhood that historically was redlined, and it suffered. There are wonderful people who live there.”
For the last three years, Untermyer has offered summer internships for Yonkers high school students. In 2019, students worked on a Rhododendron Walk that slopes toward the Ruin Garden, which borders the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. The interns also helped uncover the buried hardscape of beds that will become an ornamental vegetable garden that features a pergola of cedar wood atop stone columns. A student who wrote of her internship experience at Untermyerin her college application essay was admitted to Bennington College on a full scholarship, majoring in environmental science.
In 2015, Untermyer Gardens began the “Grand Holiday Illumination” of the walled garden. On Dec. 10, Byrns will flip the switch to turn on 100,000 colorful lights, as holiday music from many traditions plays in the background. The nightly illuminations will continue through Jan. 2, 2022.