My enthusiasm for gardens of all kinds seems inextinguishable, and my tastes are wide-ranging. I love cottage gardens, wilderness-style native gardens, garden rooms, rooftop gardens and multi-acre gardens (ah, the Biltmore Estate...), sculpture gardens, vegetable gardens, potager and herb knots and medicinal plots, historic gardens (Monticello, Bartram’s...) and my grandma’s truck patch, may my grandma rest in peace. Also Asian gardens, European gardens, alpine gardens, undersea gardens (I have yet to visit one, but I would love to do so)–and I’m intrigued by trick gardens like the one at Hellbrunn in Salzburg and themed gardens and miniature railway gardens (there’s a fun one near me at Morris Arboretum). Oh, and I adore arboretums. Or should that be arboreta?
Gardens, like art and literature, reflect unique visions and aesthetics. And they are completely process-oriented: the results, if you can call them that, are fleeting and changeable. Maybe that’s one reason they appeal to me.
Recently, I had a garden adventure that was part nostalgia, part history, part aesthetic–and a lovely day out with my sister, as well. We decided to return to a park that had been important to us when we were very young, for the three years we lived in Yonkers, NY (see my post on the Grinton Will Public Library).
My family lived in houses that had almost non-existent backyards, which is not uncommon in Yonkers–a city built on hills and cliffsides, dwellings crowded practically on top of one another in some parts of town. Our parents took us to nearby Untermyer Park for picnics, exploration, and play. Situated above the Hudson River, the park was like The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, ancient Greece, and Narnia, all rolled up into one mysterious and lovely, part-wild, part-formal place. The walled garden and the grotto beneath the Temple of Love were favorite places.
When we lived there, the park was reasonably well-kept, though not planted with many blooming flowers: lawns mowed, shrubs and trees somewhat pruned, no graffiti, a few paths cleared. The park belongs to the City of Yonkers, deeded to the public by Samuel Untermyer–a civic-minded gentleman who for some reason did not also endow the place. As a result, maintenance of the original 150 acres quickly became untenable and the city sold off much of the land. The 1862 mansion was razed, a hospital began to expand on some of the property, and the former glory rapidly decayed, overgrown by trees and weeds.
Which made it all the more exciting to people who are very young. It was entirely possible to believe there might be lions or mountain goats or fairies in the fringes of the woodland. The columns evoked stories and myths. The long reflecting pools, though not entirely full of water, were exotic canals or dangerous rivers or chasms. There were stairs and doors in surprising places, and overhanging vines, and grand old trees.
My sister and I share happy memories of the park. We had heard that it went through ups and downs depending upon the economy, the health of the city, grants, taxes, etc. Apparently the early 70s saw considerable graffiti on the walls we loved and on the grotto rocks. We heard indigent young people liked to hang out there and get stoned. We heard the woods had become littered and full of vermin. In the 1980s, some clean-up occurred; the park had made it onto the federal Historic Register. The walled garden was kept clean, and most of the graffiti tags erased. Deer roamed the place, eating everything but the mugwort, phragmites, and Japanese knotweed. The city still had trouble funding maintenance on the park, let alone restoration.
My sister went searching for Untermyer recently and learned that the city of Yonkers has hired two full-time gardeners and has partnered with a non-profit organization in an attempt to get more serious about restoration of this special place. And last weekend, she and I went on a tour with the enthusiastic gardeners and their young and enthusiastic apprentices.
And fell in love with the park all over again.
Even in its partially-wild, partially-decayed state, Untermyer Park compels the visitor. People genuinely gasp as they enter the walled Persian-style garden through the Artemis gate (the walled garden has been largely restored and looks pretty fabulous). The website offers an overview of the amazing history behind the place and includes some photos from the Roaring 20s, when Greystone Estate was the place to attend a party.
The “Persian” garden symbolizes Eden; indeed, the word “Paradise” has its etymological roots in Persia (Iran) as a compound of the word pairi- “around” and the word diz “to make, as in a wall.” Here’s a photo I took with my sister’s phone. The snapshot doesn’t do the place justice, of course; nor can it capture the thrill we felt at returning to find an old, old friend in the full bloom of health.
Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater
Click here for Untermyer website.