Behind the Effort to Restore America's Greatest Forgotten Garden

The Untermyer Gardens Conservancy was founded in 2011 to facilitate the restoration of Samuel Untermyer’s gardens in Yonkers, New York. Working with local city officials, the conservancy has been slowly reviving these long-neglected grounds, transforming the ruins into a dazzling display of architectural and landscaping splendor for the public to enjoy.

After falling in love with the gardens at Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, Samuel Untermyer—a corporate lawyer turned social welfare advocate—hired Rockefeller’s landscape architect, William Bosworth, to create a lush garden on his own estate.  But Untermyer, a passionate horticulturist, wanted something grander than what the Rockefellers had. What they ended up creating was a spectacular web of six distinctly different gardens, sprawled over 40 acres overlooking the Hudson River, each modeled to capture the spirit of a different ancient civilization. 

Under Untermyer, the gardens were impeccably well-kept and open to the public. Following his death in 1940, his estate went to the City of Yonkers, which sold off some of the land and turned the rest into a city park. But decades of neglect left the once remarkable gardens in ruin. That is, until Stephen F. Byrns came along. 

Byrns is an award-winning architect who lived near the Untermyer Gardens throughout the 1990s, when it was little more than a creepy, run-down mass of weeds and ruins. But Byrns saw potential, and as a former NYC Landmarks Preservation Commissioner, he had both the know-how and the relationships to make restoring the gardens a reality, and thus, the conservancy was born.

The conservancy has garnered considerable attention since its founding, with hundreds of people having donated to help fund the botanical restoration project. Within its first year, the conservancy raised $100,000—and thanks to a well-connected board, that number is growing every year. This year, the conservancy expects to raise $1 million.

While some contributions come from local foundations, including $25,000 from the Rockefellers Brothers Fund, most of the funding for Untermyer comes from private individuals—including a number of prominent New Yorkers like Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy, and Annette de la Renta, widow of renowned fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

The conservancy has made great strides in the botanical restoration and revitalization of the gardens, with much of the restoration effort focused on the Walled Garden. According to the conservancy:

The main feature of the gardens is the restored Indo-Persian Walled Garden with north-south and east-west canals symbolizing the four ancient rivers of Persia, the rivers of Mughal gardens in India, and the biblical descriptions of Eden.

The Walled Garden (Photo Source: The Untermyer Gardens Conservancy)

Today, the restoration effort has shifted to focus on the Temple of Love—an exquisite display of stonework and water features, capped with an intricately designed domed canopy.

The Temple of Love overlooks a magnificent view south along the Hudson River and the Palisades. Best viewed from below, it is a stupendous rocky fantasy capped with a round temple. It was the centerpiece of an extended rock garden and was flanked by terraced beds. The outcropping was an elaborate water feature, with water coursing all around it in various waterfalls and ponds.

Many of the rocks are hollowed out to form planters, and in Samuel Untermyer's time, the entire creation was elaborately planted. There are three bridges in the rough stone and a small seating area with a rough hewn stone bench that can be reached through a rocky tunnel in the folly.  An additional monolithic bridge crosses the pool at the base of the Temple of Love.

The Temple of Love (Photo Credit: James Estrin/The New York Times)

Looks insanely beautiful, doesn’t it?

Former Yonkers Mayor Angelo Martinelli agrees. In honor of his late wife, Carol, who died last year, Martinelli will finance the restoration of the Temple of Love himself, estimated to cost $500,000.

Thanks to Byrnes and the people of New York, Untermyers legacy lives on through his gardens. And today, once again, the Untermyer gardens exist exclusively for the people to bask in.