Yonkers may not be where one might expect to see a charbagh — a Persian or Indo-Persian quadrilateral garden. But for well over a century, the east bank of the Hudson River has been home to artists and tycoons who have left behind estates — such as the Olana — that are as eclectic as they are majestic and resplendent. With this history in mind, the Hudson Valley is the perfect location for the Untermyer Park and Gardens, which fuses Indo-Persian, Greek, and Roman aesthetic forms and motifs.
Untermyer’s Wish: ‘The Finest Garden in the World’
In 1899, Samuel Untermyer, a wealthy German American Jewish lawyer, purchased the 150-acre Greystone mansion from the estate of the late Samuel Tilden, who had served as New York’s governor and unsuccessfully ran for president in 1876. Untermyer quickly commenced renovation of Greystone, commissioning architect J.H. Freedlander to lead the effort, aiming to “relieve its rather gloomy appearance.” Among Freedlander’s additions to Greystone: a Turkish bath “with stained glass, tiles, and ornamental work” on the second floor. A decade later, Untermyer took on a more ambitious enterprise: a total transformation of the estate’s landscape architecture.
In 1912, Untermyer selected architect William Welles Bosworth to realize his aspiration for “the finest garden in the world.” Bosworth had previously designed John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit estate, located a dozen miles north in the town of Mount Pleasant. And Rockefeller had also recommended the Beaux-Arts school-trained Bosworth to design the Cambridge campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Untermyer Gardens History: Inspiration from the East
In her newly released book, “Paradise on the Hudson: The Creation, Loss, and Revival of a Great American Garden,” Caroline Seebhom writes that Bosworth had informed Rockefeller that his design of the Untermyer Gardens was inspired by C.M. Villiers Stuart’s 1913 book, “Gardens of the Great Mughals.”
The Mughals were a Persianized Turko-Mongol empire that ruled India from the 16th century into the 19th century. Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, was born in the Ferghana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. He fled his homeland after failing to reconquer the area, which he had lost control over after a rebellion. Babur then directed his attention south, conquering Kabul in 1504 and India in 1526. Four years later, Babur died, but he established an empire that was as powerful a cultural force as it was politically and militarily. One of his major legacies is what we call today the “Mughal garden.”
The Mughal garden concept would grow over the empire’s lifetime, but at its heart was the charbagh, which features canals that divide the garden into four quadrants, alluding to the Paradise of the Hereafter. The charbagh originated in Persia and made its way into South Asiaby way of the Mughals. Perhaps the most notable Mughal charbagh is in the Taj Mahal compound.
Bosworth, inspired by Stuart’s depiction of the Mughal gardens, applied the charbagh on to the Hudson Valley landscape. But the charbagh may not be the only Mughal landscape concept that influenced Bosworth. Many Mughal gardens, as Stuart noted in his book, were situated along the bank of a river. The Taj Mahal complex, for example, lies along the bank of the Yamuna River, just as the Untermyer Gardens are adjacent to the Hudson.
Choice of site, and the genius of the place, are the first considerations of a garden-maker everywhere. Nowhere are they more essential than in the case of an Indian garden, where the success of the great enclosure depends largely on the lie of the land enabling the builder to substitute a terrace and retaining wall for one of the four high encircling ramparts. This change of plan gives to the garden that double charm of complete seclusion and a wide prospect over the world without the walls. A steep mountain-side offers one fine opportunity, the bank of a broad river another.
C.M. Villiers Stuart, “Gardens of the Great Mughals” (1913)
Greco-Roman Focal Points in a Persian Garden
The Untermyer Gardens are no mere imitations of a Persian or Indo-Persian garden. Classical Greek and Roman elements and structures play prominent roles in the landscape. Within the walled garden is the Temple of the Sky amphitheater, where Corinthian columns surround a floor mosaic of Medusa. Among its prominent sculptures are two large sphinxes by Paul Manship. The walled garden also originally featured a ziggurat-shaped Persian pool lined with Greek mosaics. It will be restored in 2022.
Untermyer often opened his estate to the public for charitable events. In the fall of 1939, 30,000 people attended a flower show at the Untermyer Park and Gardens on a single day to watch the chrysanthemums and pansies on display. But the next year, Untermyer passed away, triggering a lost period for the compound. The property was donated to the city of Yonkers, but without an endowment to support its maintenance, the estate fell into disrepair. The Greystone mansion was razed in 1948.
In 1974, the Untermyer Park and Gardens made its way on to the National Register of Historic Places, but it continued to suffer from neglect until the early 2010s when a campaign to restore the gardens gained steam. Today, the Untermyer Gardens — branded as “America’s greatest forgotten garden” — is coming back to life thanks to the “Herculean” effort led by architect Stephen Byrns and horticulturalists Timothy Tilghman and Marco Polo Stufano.
Despite having achieved so much, there is much of the site that needs to be restored or recovered. Parts of the site are marred by graffiti and other acts of vandalism. But the walled garden has clearly been restored and reinvigorated. Today, the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy is a popular wedding photoshoot destination.
In its obituary for Untermyer, The New York Times wrote that he “had a gift for selecting causes which would project far into the future,” noting his advanced views on mass transit in New York City and his early realization of the grave danger posed by Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the gardens Untermyer left behind too should fall in that category. By fusing Indo-Persian or Islamic elements with Greek and Roman, the Untermyer Gardens affirm that a beautiful symphony can emerge from diversity. And that is a message that America, a multicultural country fraught with division, desperately needs to hear today. The rebirth of the Untermyer Gardens — an American charbagh — is indeed timely.
Untermyer Gardens Conservancy Gallery
The Untermyer Gardens Conservancy is located at 945 North Broadway in Yonkers, New York. Their offices can be reached via telephone at (914) 512-0436 or through their website.
The public gardens are open to the public from 12-6 pm Friday-Sunday. Entry into the gardens is free but requires registration through a timed-entry system during the Coronavirus pandemic.