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A Gorgeous Garden Revival in Yonkers

Behind a stone wall in Yonkers, New York, lies one of the great American horticultural treasures of the early 20th century. Thanks to a recently established conservancy, the gardens are on their way back to their former glory.

Features Editor
Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Planted almost 100 years ago, two 50-foot-tall weeping beeches flank the entrance to the Walled Garden. Marigolds in shades of yellow, orange, and white undulate in waves with silvery dichondra along the canal. Two heights of holly shrubs (Ilex crenata ‘Steeds’ and Ilex crenata ‘Helleri’) break up the soft planting, giving the beds structure.

When Samuel Untermyer hired architect William Welles Bosworth to design the landscape for his home in Yonkers, New York, in 1915, his edict was clear: Create “the greatest gardens in the world.” A prominent lawyer, Untermyer was active in the financial and political affairs of his day. (His many accomplishments include work instrumental in establishing the Federal Reserve.) But his true passion was for horticulture; he always wore an orchid in his lapel. So the Beaux-Arts architect set to work creating a series of spectacular gardens that reflected Untermyer’s keen interests and travels. Equipped with 60 greenhouses and 60 gardeners, the 150-acre estate, with its Indo-Persian and Greek influences, was soon a celebrated destination.

Untermyer wanted to share his gardens and opened them to the public once a week. Since the New York City suburb was easily accessible by public transportation, people visited frequently: In 1939, 30,000 people from all over the world came in one day. “Untermyer liked to follow people around and listen to their comments, and if they misidentified a plant, he would correct them,” says Stephen Byrns, the present-day chair of the Untermyer Garden Conservancy. The gardens were bestowed upon the city of Yonkers after Untermyer’s death in 1940.

An architect and a former commissioner of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Byrns discovered the gardens more than 20 years ago, when he was living in Yonkers. Unfortunately, they had suffered a decline in the decades following Untermyer’s death—the city could do only so much. Hoping to restore them to their past glory, Byrns formed the conservancy in 2010, establishing a public-private partnership with the city of Yonkers. One of the first things he did was to hire Marco Polo Stufano, the esteemed founding director of horticulture at Wave Hill, in the Bronx, as the pro bono horticulture adviser.

These days, the gardens are free and open daily, year-round. The conservancy and city are not recreating them exactly as they were, however. Nor do they want to. “We’re trying to do something much more adventurous, more creative, as well as less labor-intensive,” says Byrns. Stufano and head gardener Timothy Tilghman devise a different planting plan each year for areas in the Walled Garden and are working on revitalizing additional gardens. The beds around the Vista, for example, a dramatic staircase that leads to an overlook of the Hudson River, will soon be replanted with Cryptomeria ‘Radicans.’ They have also recently rediscovered the site of the old Rock Garden. “It’s like ancient Rome. The ground sort of builds up and buries things,” says Byrns.

Visiting the Indo-Persian Walled Garden can also feel a bit like stumbling onto a hidden treasure. It reveals itself gradually. After passing through its doorway, you are greeted by two century-old weeping beech trees. It isn’t until you move beyond those massive trees that the rest of the garden appears: Canals and pools, equipped with fountains, lead to a Greek-inspired amphitheater, which is adorned with sphinx sculptures by Paul Manship on top of monolithic cipollino-marble columns. It’s an extraordinary hidden oasis. Byrns has often described it as “America’s greatest forgotten garden.” These days, thanks to the conservancy and its gardeners, we think it won’t go undiscovered much longer.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
The Greek-inspired amphitheater stands at the far end of the garden entrance. The two turquoise pots at the edge of a pool feature Canna ‘Grande,’ underplanted with Duranta erecta ‘Golden Edge,’ Alternanthera dentata ‘True Yellow,’ and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea.’
Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
Enamored with the staircase at Lake Como’s Villa D’Este, Untermyer asked Bosworth to create something similar in Yonkers. The steps lead to a viewing platform on the Hudson River, featuring a pair of ancient Roman monolithic marble columns that are more than 2,000 years old. Tilghman is in the process of restoring the cryptomeria allée that descends the steps.
Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO
“The sphinxes protect the amphitheater, which was the seat of culture in the garden,” says Byrns. The Untermyer family held concerts, hosted galas celebrating poetry, and gave dance performances here. At the base of the amphitheater is a large reflecting pool filled with papyrus, water lilies, thalia, and other aquatic plants. Sweet-potato vine trails down its walls.

A Bold Plan

The annual plantings change every year in the Walled Garden, which allows for a kind of freedom. “We can take more risks,” Tilghman says. “We don’t want to be predictable.”

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO

1. Elevate the Ordinary

There’s a reason marigolds are common: They’re “great performers,” says Tilghman of the oft-maligned plant. He combined reds, yellows, oranges, and whites, including the Durango series cultivars.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO

2. Add the Unexpected

With its trailing habit, the silvery Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ softens the lines of the beds and offers a respite against the vibrant colors of ‘Janie Primrose Yellow’ and ‘Janie Flame’ marigolds.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO

3. Play with Scale

The large chartreuse leaves of ‘Big Blonde’ coleus and bright-yellow marigolds contrast with the diminutive purple globes (Gomphrena globosa ‘Buddy Purple’ and Angelonia ‘Angelwings Dark Blue’) around the pool.

Photography by: NGOC MINH NGO

4. Complement and Contrast

It’s not enough to have colors that complement one another. Here, purple Angelonia ‘Angelwings Dark Blue’ contrasts vividly with orange marigolds and chartreuse sweet-potato vine.