Once among the world’s most celebrated gardens, this beautiful but long-neglected park was allegedly a hotspot for satanic cults in 1970s New York. In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, Untermyer Gardens was a horticultural wonder, and civic leader Samuel Untermyer’s personal pride and joy.
Originally built in the Civil War-era by the hat merchant John Waring, the 99-room mansion later passed into the hands of Samuel Tilden, a former governor whose presidential campaign failed. After Tilden’s death, Untermyer acquired the estate at auction in 1899.
With 150 acres of land, stunning views of the Hudson River and seemingly endless funds and ambition, Untermyer employed an army of gardeners for his estate. The grounds boasted an array of elaborately constructed fountains and temples, 2,000-year-old columns specially imported from Italy, 60 functioning greenhouses and the world’s only living sundial. Once a week Untermyer would open his gardens to the public, attracting visitors from around the world who were eager to explore the masterfully executed grounds.
The centerpiece of the gardens is the Walled Garden. Said to be the largest Persian garden in North America, it contained four canals representing the four Biblical rivers, which also divided the garden in quadrants. At one point, 30,000 people in one day visited the estate.
When Untermyer passed away in 1940 he intended to leave his gardens to the federal government, the State of New York or at least the City of Yonkers, but all three were so daunted by the enormous cost of upkeep that the land was initially refused. Yonkers eventually accepted a smaller portion of the estate containing the core gardens, but finance remained an issue and the park was left to a slow ruin.
After several decades of neglect, the 1970s attracted a far more sinister group of visitors to Untermyer Park. Satanic groups allegedly used the wooded and overgrown grounds for moonlit gatherings, dark rites and animal sacrifice. Disturbing police reports from the late 1970s document the finding of mutilated and skinned dogs in the aqueduct south of the park, and employees working the graveyard shift at nearby St. John’s hospital tell tales of torch flames and strange chanting coming from the woods.
Infamous “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz himself claims to have been a member of a satanic group that used Untermyer park for its ritualistic gatherings; theories abound as to such a group’s possible influence and role in Berkowitz’s serial killing spree.
The park’s dark reputation is well known in the area; satanic graffiti scribblings mar formerly grand structures and in the past there was a distinctly forlorn feel to the emptiness of the grounds.
A recent push has been made to restore Untermyer’s once-beloved gardens, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, and the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy was established in 2011. Since then, enormous improvements have been made, with six gardeners working there now. The regional and national press, including Martha Stewart, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have devoted many articles to its breathtaking transformation, although there are many ruins remaining. With 50,000 visitors last year it still has the potential to become the finest garden in America, as it was in the 1920s.
On Sunday, July 21, 2019, join Atlas Obscura for The Great Forgotten Garden Party at Untermyer Park.