Stepping into Paradise: Untermyer’s Walled Persian Garden
Hailed by the public in the 1920’s and ’30s as America’s “most spectacular garden,” then falling into decay a few decades later, the Untermyer Gardens have undergone an awe-inspiring transformation. Today the walled Persian garden covers more than 40 acres overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, where the gardens once again have become a truly spectacular sight to behold.
Samuel Untermyer was a very prosperous corporate lawyer, investor, and devoted horticulturist who acquired the property, which was then called Greystone, in 1899. His ambition was to create “the finest garden in the world,” not merely the best in America. He hired Beaux Arts architect William Welles Bosworth to design the gardens in 1916, shortly after Bosworth had done the gardens for John D. Rockefeller Sr. in nearby Kykuit, in Pocantico Hills.
But Untermyer wanted something “much grander and sprawling” than Kykuit, according to Stephen F. Byrns, Chairman of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy. Untermyer’s gardens were 3- or 4-times as large as Rockefeller’s. And the public was very impressed. The New York Times reported that on a single day in October 1939, a crowd of 30,000 people came to see Untermyer’s free flower show featuring millions of chrysanthemums and pansies.
Inspired by Antiquity
The centerpiece of the Untermyer Gardens then and now is a Walled Persian Garden that is arguably “the greatest Persian garden in the Western Hemisphere.” Its restoration began in 2011. Above its stone entrance, an impressive relief sculpture of the Greek goddess Artemis (known as the goddess of nature) beckons visitors inside where the view is breathtaking, stretching thousands of feet ahead along a river-like canal flanked by lush flower beds and potted tropical plants adorned in vivid yellows, violets, chartreuses, and darker shades of green and purple.
The main north-south “river” is crossed by an east-west “river”– the four waterways symbolize the four ancient rivers of Persia, as well as the rivers of Mughal gardens in India (and also the biblical descriptions of Eden). The canals are punctuated with dozens of gurgling water jets. Where they cross, there are square shallow pools with goldfish and water lilies.
The overwhelming effect upon entering the space is tropical, sensuous, and serene, as if you are in a mythical garden of the ancient past. Late summer and fall plantings along the waterways include huge, veined and leafy elephant’s ear, deep purple alternanthera, silvery dichondra, and light green sweet potato vine. Horticulturist Timothy Tilghman and a team of several gardeners change the plants from season to season, making more sophisticated choices than those in Untermyer’s day.
Monumental Sculptures in a Greek Amphitheater
At the end of the north-south waterway is a large aquatic garden and a huge Greek-style amphitheater that is framed by two imposing marble columns. Each column supports a monumental sphinx sculpture. These powerful winged creatures, sculpted by Paul Manship, are based on ancient fountain sculptures at the Boboli Gardens, an Italian Renaissance garden in Florence, Italy. (Manship is most famous for his gilded “Prometheus” statue at Rockefeller Center.)
Below the marble columns, lovely geometric and floral mosaic tiles decorate the terrace floor. They look like ancient mosaics from Byzantine or Roman villas, and are yet another example of the many diverse cultures reflected in the Walled Garden– elements from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Italian Renaissance gardens.
Perennial Borders Sheltered by Castle Walls
Along the east and west sides of the Walled Garden are 350-foot-long shrub and perennial borders blooming in late summer and early fall with hydrangeas, perennial geraniums, crape myrtles, red roses, and more. The western border gets the afternoon sun, while the eastern side favors more shade-loving plants.
The rectangular, castle-like walls that surround the garden are 18-feet high and are made of tan-colored stone. Four octagonal corner towers enclose the four corners of the garden. The towers have open roofs supported by columns. Their bases are patterned with bricks. The stone walls also have a diamond-shaped, decorative pattern resembling etched latticework. Like the walls of medieval castles, these walls are crenellated across the top with rectangular cut-out openings. The walls themselves add to the almost theatrical feeling of this mythical space.
Views of the Hudson River and Palisades
From the lower terrace of the Walled Garden, an awesome set of stone and grass steps cascade down toward the Hudson River to what’s called the “Vista.” Dozens of slender, pyramidal Japanese cedars have been planted in rows on both sides of the steps to draw the eye down to the view. There are plans to plant more this fall in order to complete the effect.
These evergreens were part of the original Bosworth design, but were lost in later years. Bosworth based his design on the famous rows of cypresses leading to a view of Lake Como at the Villa d’ Este in Italy– one of the greatest Italian Renaissance gardens.
At the bottom of the steps is the Vista Overlook with two graceful marble columns that stage a grandiose view of the Hudson River and the Palisades. The columns were imported to America by the famous architect, Stanford White, and were made from ancient Roman cipollino marble, which has a shimmer and ripple effect like the columns in the amphitheater.
The changing fall colors of the Palisades and the Hudson, as seen from this final vantage point, only add to the incredible mystique and drama of the Walled Garden– a marvelous getaway in the Hudson River Valley that continues to enchant its visitors.