‘It’s an incredible story, so we’re bringing it back’

Steve Byrns ’77 stands in the Walled Garden of Untermyer Gardens.
Michael Falco/Black Star
Maybe the garden was waiting for Steve Byrns ’77. 

Called the most spectacular garden in America in the 1920s, the 150-acre beauty built by Samuel Untermyer had spiraled into ruins by the time Byrns visited in the 1990s. Overgrown and vandalized, it had been used as a hangout by hippies and frequented by a famous serial killer who lived nearby. 

Byrns, a Princeton history major who became an architect, was captivated not only by the garden’s charm, but by its story. A decade ago he returned to the site in Yonkers, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. The next year he founded the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy to undertake a massive restoration. Four years ago — at age 61 — he left his firm in the city to lead the conservancy full time.

The Temple of Love at Untermyer Gardens
Photo by Jessica Norman
“It’s sort of like a new chapter in my life,” he says. 

Byrns has always been interested in historic preservation. At Princeton he studied under Carl Schorske and absorbed how the professor looked at time periods through a lens of cultural, historical, political, and artistic issues. Later Byrns served as New York City’s landmarks preservation commissioner, an influential volunteer position in a city with 35,000 landmarks.

Then he learned about Samuel Untermyer. Once a prominent lawyer in New York City, Untermyer was called “Hitler’s bitterest foe.” He and his wife — she was Christian, he was Jewish — were “very progressive people” who landed on the right side of history again and again, supporting women’s suffrage and then trying to stop Nazism in the 1930s through an international movement and boycott, Byrns says. Plus Untermyer had some Princeton connections, including a friendship with Albert Einstein.

But Untermyer’s real passion was horticulture. He bought the former estate of Samuel Tilden, a former New York governor who nearly became president, hired the Rockefellers’ architect and 60 gardeners, and turned the site into an internationally renowned gem. After his death in 1940, Yonkers took a parcel and turned it into a park. 

The Vista at Untermyer Gardens
Photo by Jessica Norman
Today Untermyer Gardens comprises 43 of the original acres. Eighty thousand people visited last year; admission is free but the conservancy takes donations for its continued restoration work.

Byrns loves how the designs draw on world religions and cultures. One section called the Vista features two 25-foot-high Roman columns 2,000 years old. Another, the Walled Garden, is the finest Persian garden in the Western Hemisphere, Byrns says. Persian gardens were originally Zoroastrian and later became Islamic, drawing on the Garden of Eden story that appears in all three Abrahamic religions. 

Some visitors see it as an antidote to our divisive times, Byrns says. 

“This garden sort of brings all of humanity together in this beautiful, spiritual setting,” he says. “If you’re interested in history, if you’re interested in architecture, if you’re interested in different religions or different parts of the world, it’s all here.

“It’s an incredible story, so we’re bringing it back.”