In their heyday of the 1920s and ’30s, the magnificent gardens that surrounded Samuel Untermyer’s 150-acre extravagant estate in Yonkers were considered among the finest in the country. Untermyer, a wealthy attorney and Democratic Party activist, employed 60 full-time gardeners and had 60 greenhouses on-site to supply plants for the colorful landscaped gardens and the 29-room mansion known as Greystone.
On a single fall day in 1939, 30,000 people stepped inside the gates of Greystone to view a flower show and admire the soaring Greek sculptures and sweeping vistas down to the Hudson River.
Untermyer’s grand gardens weren’t his only passion, however. A partner in the law firm Guggenheimer, Untermyer & Marshall, Untermyer was said to be the first lawyer in America to earn a $1 million fee on a single case. The highly successful trial lawyer was famous for his cross-examination skills, according to Gray Williams, author of Picturing Our Past: National Register Sites in Westchester County, which was published in 2003 by the county historical society.
“He became rich representing corporate clients and investing in their enterprises,” writes Williams. “At the same time, he was deeply involved in ‘good government’ causes, such as opposition to monopolies and support of honest business accounting.”
Untermyer was instrumental in establishing the Federal Reserve System and advocated for the regulation of stock exchanges. He also was an influential Democrat, not only in New York but also nationally, and a close ally of President Woodrow Wilson.
Born in Virginia in 1858 to Jewish immigrants and raised in New York City after the Civil War, Untermyer was an important critic of anti-Semitism and an early and eloquent opponent of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. He was a prominent Zionist and the president of the Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal). In the 1930s, he was the national leader of an unsuccessful movement that called for a worldwide boycott of Germany and the destruction of Hitler’s regime.
In 1899, he bought Greystone at auction from the heirs of former New York governor and defeated presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, who had lived in the Yonkers country estate from 1879 until his death in 1886.
Determined to restore the palatial property inside and out, and realizing his desire for the “greatest gardens in the world,” Untermyer commissioned landscape architect William Welles Bosworth in 1916, a few years after Bosworth had created the gardens at Kykuit in Pocantico Hills for John D. Rockefeller Sr., in the same Beaux-Arts style of landscape design. Never one to be outdone, Untermyer insisted that his gardens be better and bigger than Rockefeller’s.
As part of his lavish garden plan, Bosworth designed a Persian garden with 18’ crenelated walls, to include long water channels and several imposing architectural features, including the Temple of Love, a circular classical temple that overlooks a waterfall and pool, an amphitheater at the north end, and imposing sphinx sculptures by Paul Manship, best known for his iconic gilded statue of Prometheus in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.
Unlike many of the era’s corporate titans and robber barons with grand Hudson Valley estates, Untermyer was a learned horticulturalist and smart gardener. To find the best gardeners for his estate, Untermyer would dispatch an agent to the ocean steamship docks to meet arriving ships, especially those arriving from England.
He was particularly fond of orchids, growing more than 3,000 varieties in his greenhouses. Without fail, he donned a specimen of his favorite orchid group, Odontioda, in his buttonhole every day, “generally changing his boutonniere three or four times in 12 hours,” according to a 1940 article in the New Yorker, titled, “The Boutonnieres of Mr. Untermyer.” The routine required his chauffeur to drive to Manhattan around noon each day with a damp box of fresh orchids as replacements.
He also generously shared his beloved gardens, opening them to the public every Tuesday throughout the ’20s and ’30s.
Following Untermyer’s death in 1940, the Greystone mansion fell into disrepair and was torn down soon after World War II. His efforts to leave his estate to the state, the county of Westchester, or the city of Yonkers had been unsuccessful — no one, including his children, wanted responsibility for the property without an endowment to cover the high costs of its care. But, in 1946, Yonkers agreed to accept 43 acres of the property, to create Untermyer Park.
In recent years, the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy has painstakingly brought the once-great gardens back to life, adding thousands of new plantings and uncovering the bones of Bosworth’s landscape plan. Now open to the public, many parts of the extraordinary gardens reach their peak in May and June, providing the perfect chance to explore one of Westchester’s great treasures.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.