By Jana Seitz
It’s hard to fully describe the thrill of finding the Garden of Eden right smack in the middle of Yonkers, you just have to trust me and go find it yourself. The man-made miracle of Samuel Untermyer awaits you, a classic Indo-Persian garden as soothing as a balm in Gilead.
On a recent dreary morning, I corralled a group of ladies — pulling them away from Pilates and pickups — to drag them to sights unseen. I worried they’d not be as enamored as I, but watching their faces light up as the fog burned away to reveal the mystery was as much fun as seeing it for the first time myself. It’s a true time warp: one minute you’re on Broadway, the next in Eden. It’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen.
Untermyer’s Walled Garden is very likely the greatest Persian garden in the Western Hemisphere, hiding in plain sight. You may never make it to the Taj Mahal or the Alhambra, but you’ve no excuse for not getting here.
Successful attorney Samuel Untermyer began his homestead’s private gardens in 1916, managed by a staff of 60 gardeners and supplied by 60 greenhouses. He opened them to the public the following year. Thirty thousand people visited “America’s Most Spectacular Garden” on a single day in 1939. Untermyer’s death in 1940 ushered in a slow dance of decline, as neither New York City nor Westchester County was interested in (or could afford) the upkeep. The property became a Yonkers municipal park, the mansion was torn down soon after World War II, and the earth began its reclamation.
In 2011, the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy began the Herculean effort to dig out and restore the site to its former glory. (An earlier attempt in the 1970s failed, but is credited with preventing a teardown of the entire property.) The gardens re-opened last spring and are yours for exploring. On “mini adventure” time, weekdays between 8 and 3, you’re likely to have the place all to yourself.
After exploring the Walled Garden, be certain to see the rest of the story (grab a brochure/map of the park at the Walled Garden entrance). There are some 43 acres on which to hunt for “treasures,” with features in various forms of decay and repair strewn all over. Find the 2,000-year-old Roman marble columns on the Vista Overlook. Explore the remains of the Color Gardens, now flanked by a hospital parking lot. Stroll down the hillside trails to the Temple of Love where Isadora Duncan performed. Continue downhill to the crumbling Gate House guarded by its lion and unicorn sculptures and out on the Old Croton Aqueduct trail.
The Walled Garden
The Aqueduct is yet another marvel of antiquity, linking Hudson River villages for more than 150 years by bringing much-needed water from the Croton Reservoir to New York City. The old masonry tunnel lies just beneath the surface, and the 26-mile trail winds through Westchester County, all but forgotten.
Head north on the trail for a half-mile stroll, crossing Odell Avenue (with pedestrian crosswalk) until you come to a set of concrete steps on your right. This is the back entrance to Lenoir Preserve, a 40-acre nature preserve, formerly the home of two Hudson River estates, the Lenoir and Alder mansions. The trail is a bit steep, but is a series of switchbacks. There are markers for two separate paths leading up to the preserve. You can’t get lost. There is a seasonal butterfly garden and a nature center up top, but the pièce de résistance is Alder Manor itself, which remains intact with a gallant effort underway to preserve it. I was lucky enough to happen upon a film shoot in progress and walked in as if I were just another production assistant to wander the empty rooms, some of which have gorgeous draperies still hanging and decaying in place.
From Lenoir, walk the short distance by road back to your car at Untermyer and type in 71 Water Grant Street in your GPS (but don’t do what it says). Take a left out of the parking lot onto North Broadway, left on Odell, left on Warburton. This is the prettier drive where you can well imagine the former glory of the Victorian houses now hemmed in by bad zoning and modern construction. Have lunch at X2O: Xaviers on the Hudson, the Dolphin, or Café Hudson, all located on the Yonkers waterfront on the charming Alfred B. DelBello Riverwalk.