Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Cinderella Garden

The sinister reputation became widespread when the mutilated corpses of dogs were found at the edge of the garden in 1976.  Forgotten and progressively in ruins since it was given to the city in 1946, the crumbling statues and walls were being covered in dark graffiti, the authentic Roman columns reflected not light, but gloom; the sphinxes beheld it all in their silence.  The next year, when David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, was captured, he claimed to have participated in Satanic rituals there.  Anyone who visited after this went with no good intentions.

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But the garden park in Yonkers, New York had been built back in 1912 with all the skill, vision and funding that could be desired.  Former Virginian and lawyer Samuel Untermyer had moved to the city after the Civil War, had prospered as an investor as well as with the law, and built his Greystone mansion on 150 acres with a stunning view of the Hudson River and the Palisades at the turn of the 20th century.  When completed, the extensive gardens (Untermyer's architect was instructed to design "the finest garden in the world") employed 50 to 60 gardeners and trained many apprentices.  The proud owner opened it free to the public on Tuesdays during the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1970s the locals had forgotten about it all.

Untermyer was something of a Renaissance man, with wide interests beyond becoming successful in society.  In addition to being a knowledgeable horticulturist, he was active in efforts to regulate the stock exchange and establish the Federal Reserve, led a boycott of Nazi Germany and strongly supported and aided women's suffrage.  His garden featured a Greek amphitheater where Isadora Duncan once danced and soaring classical pavilions, but its claim to fame, and the part that survives today in the 43 acres left, is the walled Indo-Persian garden.  It has been called a "paradise" by many visitors and writers and is the best of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Or it is once again.  Just a few years ago a visitor was inspired by the garden's history and its remaining classical pieces and spurred the founding of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy.  After much labor, design work and fund raising (as it always it with such projects), it is now open once again, daily and without admission charge. 

Samuel Untermyer passed away in 1940, his fortune depleted, and his mansion was razed.  But if anyone's spirit is still around, you can hope his is, strolling the garden at dusk and quietly enjoying the view to the far side of the Hudson.


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