Samuel Untermeyer enjoyed an early career as a corporate lawyer, but he later became famous for trust-busting, perhaps most famously, against J.P. Morgan. He also successfully fought to save the 5 cent subway fare. He was one of the most prominent Jews in America, and the first lawyer to earn a one million dollar fee on a single case.
In 1912 he commissioned William Welles Bosworth to design gardens for his Yonkers, New York estate, Greystone, located on the banks of the Hudson River. Bosworth had just completed a garden design for Untermeyer’s neighbor, John D. Rockefeller Sr. at Kykuit, just down the river. The 150-acre Untermeyer garden included a Persian walled garden, extensive rock gardens and vegetable beds. There were sixty glass greenhouses, including four grape houses and four peach houses, a palm house, an aquatic house, a tropical house, and a rose house. Many glasshouses were dedicated to orchids, one of Mr. Untermeyer’s favorite flowers. (his favorite three, he said, were Delphiniums, Dahlias and Orchids) He customarily wore an orchid boutonniere every day, and when working in town, this meant that his chauffer arrived every three hours from Yonkers with a damp box containing a fresh orchid for his buttonhole.
While Mr. Untermeyer lived at Greystone, the grounds were open to the public every Tuesday and for special occasions, such as the annual chrysanthemum show. 30,000 visitors came on one day in 1939. Untermeyer’s ambition, he once said, was for it to be “the finest garden in the world.”
In his eighties, he approached the City of Yonkers, Westchester County, and the State of New York, hoping to interest them in maintaining the garden as a public park, but the timing was unfortunate. They rejected his offer, but Untermeyer still bequeathed the garden to them, stipulating they must each decide in a timely manner. When he died in 1940, they refused again, and although some of the gardens were bought by the City of Yonkers in 1946, a long period of neglect and decline began. Untermeyer’s once grand house was destroyed, and a hospital constructed. In the 1990’s, more property was purchased by the City, bringing the total acreage to forty-three.
Today, spearheaded by The Untermeyer Gardens Conservancy in cooperation with the Yonkers Parks Department, a re-imagining of the once-great garden is underway. Marco Polo Stufano, Founding Director of Horticulture at Wave Hill, has guided efforts, and a fulltime horticulturist has been employed by the Conservancy since 2011. A schedule of 90-minute tours of Untermeyer Park, as well as directions are listed on the Garden’s website, http://www.untermyergardens.org/.