Article by Eliott Grover, photos by Timothy LaMorte and Jessica Norman
The throng that descended on Yonkers on Oct. 29, 1939 was eager. It was the kind of turnout one would expect for a championship parade or coronation. But these people, some 30,000 of them, had come for a flower show. “Visitors came from foreign lands and distant parts of this country,” The New York Times reported, “to see the millions of chrysanthemums and pansies.” The guests admired the plants as they strolled through 150 acres of private gardens.
The gardens were part of an estate owned by Samuel Untermyer, a prominent corporate attorney and progressive activist. Untermyer approached life with a strong sense of civic-mindedness, which is why he opened his gardens to the public every week. Perched above the Hudson River with crystalline views of the Palisades, Untermyer’s gardens were a transcendent union of horticulture and architecture steeped in world history. They were tended by 60 full-time gardeners and supplied by 60 greenhouses. The highlight was an Indo-Persian walled garden that featured four intersecting waterways to symbolize the four rivers of paradise. The national press described it as the most spectacular garden in America.
This glory proved as ephemeral as morning dew. Following Untermyer’s death in 1940, the estate was gradually sold off in pieces. The city of Yonkers acquired a 16-acre parcel to use as a public park. The park featured some of the most stunning elements of Untermyer’s gardens, including two ancient Roman columns, but the city lacked the resources to adequately maintain it. Untended, the gardens began to disappear.
Garden Captivates Steve Byrns ’73
Steve Byrns ’73 moved to Yonkers in 1988. When he first visited Untermyer Gardens, they were neglected and vandalized. The 2,000-year-old monolithic Roman columns were magnets for graffiti. Thick bramble and fallen trees hid much of the once intricate landscape. “There’s an extensive network of waterworks and there was no water to be seen, just cracked concrete,” says Byrns.
As an architect with a passion for historic preservation, Byrns was captivated by what he saw despite the conditions. He soon became involved with a community initiative to protect the north end of the park. The land was owned by an adjacent hospital that planned to remove a large section of gardens to build a nursing home. Byrns led a grassroots campaign to persuade the hospital to reconsider. He even debated its president on live television. “But the president held all the cards,” Byrns says. “The hospital did what it wanted, and the effort failed.”
Byrns was discouraged. He moved to Riverdale a few years later and forgot about the gardens. He poured himself into his work as a founding partner at BKSK Architects and seized other opportunities to pursue his interests in community engagement and historic preservation. In 2000, Byrns joined the Board of Wave Hill, a lustrous public garden in the Bronx. Four years later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed him to serve as a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commissioner.
In 2010, Byrns heard that one of the fountains in Untermyer Gardens had been turned on for the first time in decades. He went to see it for himself. “It just blew me away even though it was still really run down and didn’t look like much,” Byrns says. “At the time, I didn’t know I was looking at a Persian garden, but I thought it was very special.”
For Byrns, the effect of seeing the running water was Wordsworthian. He read the Romantic poets during his lower mid year at Hotchkiss, which fortified an early appreciation for natural beauty. The flowing water he saw that day was proof of life, a pulse that promised something special survived beneath the bramble.
One afternoon, Byrns was visiting the home of Marco Polo Stufano, the founding director of horticulture at Wave Hill. Byrns saw a book on Stufano’s coffee table about Persian gardens. He started flipping through and noticed similarities to the Untermyer Walled Garden. It was unlikely, considering there were no known Indo-Persian gardens in the western hemisphere; but Byrns and Stufano became convinced that renowned architect and landscape designer William Welles Bosworth had designed such a garden in Yonkers. Picking up the scent of buried history, Byrns was eager to unearth it.
Starting a Conservancy
Byrns started exploring what it would take to launch a conservancy to restore the gardens and serve as a steward. With interest in a public-private partnership, things moved quickly. Byrns assembled a board of trustees and began fundraising. Once the key organizational pieces were in place, he turned his attention to the gardens.
Although Byrns had a longstanding interest in horticulture, he knew the project needed professional oversight. Stufano had recently retired from Wave Hill, so he asked if the gardener would consider serving as the conservancy’s horticultural advisor. “He was the most highly revered person in the horticulture world,” Byrns says. “To my great pleasure and surprise, he said he would.”
The Untermyer Gardens Conservancy was founded in 2011. Byrns continued to practice architecture, but he was vigorously engaged as the conservancy’s chairman and president from day one. He called Timothy Tilghman, their fulltime gardener, every morning during his commute. On weekends, Byrns joined Tilghman on site. They would walk the grounds inspecting progress, hatching plans, and hypothesizing about what new discoveries awaited.
Slowly but surely, the jungle receded. With the help of a growing number of professional gardeners, they were able to clear mountains of overgrowth and garbage. Tilghman and Byrns set their sights on restoring the gardens to the elaborate beauty of their heyday. They approached the project like an archaeological excavation, scouring old maps and photographs for clues about Bosworth’s original design. Byrns relished every aspect of the work. “It was really the perfect convergence of interests for me,” he says. “History, architecture, preservation, horticulture, and different religions.”
Word spread quickly as the gardens returned to life. Articles in Martha Stewart Living, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets fueled a surge in interest. In 2011, the gardens received 6,000 visitors. Last year, the figure swelled to an estimated 125,000. The Untermyer Gardens are now one of the top tourist attractions in Westchester County. While admission is free, Byrns has led a robust fundraising operation. The conservancy now has nine gardeners and has followed in Untermyer’s footsteps of public service by engaging the Yonkers community through various programs. Lectures, garden tours, and special events are common. Local high schoolers can apply for paid internships.
For Byrns, the work is exhilarating and bottomless. In 2016, he left his architecture firm to spend all his time leading the conservancy. “No one was surprised,” he says of the decision. With his partners’ blessing, he had gradually been scaling back his responsibilities. “I moved ahead, and at age 61, it was like this whole new chapter in my life.”
In his day-to-day role as president of the conservancy, Byrns continues to draw on his architectural background. He estimates that a third of his time is spent planning and overseeing construction projects. He also steers fundraising efforts and meets with Tilghman every day to discuss the ongoing horticulture work.
In 2017, the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art presented Byrns with its prestigious Arthur Ross Award for Stewardship. The following year, he received the Historic Preservation Medal from the Garden Club of America. Both awards acknowledged the pivotal role Byrns has played in restoring Untermyer Gardens.
Reflecting on Hotchkiss
At 68, Byrns has no immediate plans to retire. He is invigorated by these projects and excited about the future of the gardens. He is also excited about an upcoming personal milestone. This fall, Byrns will return to Hotchkiss to celebrate his 50th reunion. The occasion has given him reason to reflect on his time in Lakeville, where he fondly recalls imbibing the splendor of the Northwest Corner as an adolescent. “I was just starting to learn about gardening, and seeing a very beautiful natural environment awakened me to its importance in my life.”
Hotchkiss also kindled his love of history, which he went on to study at Princeton. As an upper mid, Byrns took American history with Sherman Barker. The class met after Chapel, and one day Barker asked the students to discuss the historical context of that morning’s hymn. Analyzing lyrics that were written in 1917, Byrns and his classmates suddenly saw the influence of World War I. “It got me thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s history in a hymn,’” Byrns says. “I never thought of that before. It lit a little spark for me. History is deeply entwined in everything you see.”
Byrns now sees history everywhere. In places, in buildings, and even in overgrown gardens.