Lyndhurst Landscape Restoration Well on its Way: Witness A Welcome Respite This Spring
By Linda Viertel
Spring’s long-awaited arrival is providing relief from sheltering indoors and giving much-needed outdoor breathing space for exercise and enjoyment while making sure physical distancing remains the rule. And, what better way to experience the outdoors, budding trees, spring flowers, and expansive lawns with views to the glorious Hudson River than to stroll the grounds at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown. Gould’s famous mansion is renowned for its heritage trees, the skeletal remains of its once glorious greenhouse, a well-tended rose garden, connection to The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, and old-world apple trees still bearing fruit. All are available for the public’s enjoyment and being improved on a daily basis.
Howard Zar, Lyndhurst’s executive director, has started to implement a multi-stage restoration of the property, bringing the rockeries, vistas, walkways and tree house back to their former glory. Here’s a list – and a slideshow – of what has been accomplished thus far and what’s planned for the future:
(Photo credits: Lyndhurst)
- The first phase of the Historic Commons in the County Park has been completed. This is ultimately intended to connect Lyndhurst with Washington Irving’s Sunnyside estate to the south and create a 150-acre open space between Sunnyside, the County Park lands, Lyndhurst and the Montefiore property including right of ways via the Old Croton Aqueduct State Park and the Westchester RiverWalk. A path connects to the existing South End RiverWalk that runs along the Lyndhurst riverfront as well as to the newly installed lower landscape walkways at Lyndhurst. This RiverWalk pathway follows an existing historic drive that originally connected to South Broadway and provided access to four estate—all burned by an arsonist long ago. The remains of the estates can be seen in the forest, including a stone-lined circular swimming pool, a foundation for a gatehouse and numerous remnants of estate foundations. Pachysandra from the former estates is still growing in many areas. As it gets slightly warmer, a native meadow mix will be seeded into areas around the pathway making this feel like a walk in the forest. Future plans call for additional walkways to provide river views and direct access between Sunnyside and Lyndhurst.
- The Lyndhurst Swimming Pool Building, which is the last unrestored building on the property, is going through initial renovations. Over the winter, new roofing was placed on the front section of the building, and the existing roof over the natatorium was stabilized and made watertight. Structural work has also been done, as maintenance and construction trades have been allowed to continue their work in a safe manner. This includes fixing and adding roof supports on the interior and adding missing bricks at the top of the walls. Electrical wiring is being added into the building, as most of the prior wiring has been decommissioned. Safety lighting, smoke detectors and fire exit signs will be added as well. Over the winter, the entry section of the building (where the lobby and changing rooms used to be) received a new floor with new foundational supports. On the exterior, visitors can now see new gravel that was added, restoring a historic pathway to the front of the building and providing a drip line around the structure. The overgrowth has been cleaned out and the ground reseeded. Visitors can walk up the steps to the front door and see the entry vestibule that, even in degraded condition, gives an excellent sense of what the room looked like. Two years from now, the entry vestibule will be restored.
- Two benches are being created for the lower landscape. The first will be placed into the rockery that is at the bottom of the stairs immediately below the mansion. The second is a D- shaped bench that will by situated in the main rockery. These are being recreated from historic photographs taken circa 1870, shortly after the second family to own Lyndhurst moved in. The D-shaped bench went around a huge chestnut tree that likely had been planted in the 1600s when the property was a Dutch farm. For the Dutch, the chestnut was the dietary equivalent of the potato. Sadly, a blight wiped out all the American chestnuts. When the bench is in place, a Chinkapin oak (dwarf chestnut) will be planted in the center. That tree has a similar leaf structure to the chestnut tree. The benches will be painted in a green color that was common in the 19th century; paint drips of this green color were found on some of the existing rocks in the rockeries. In addition to restoring the historic appearance of the estate, the benches will provide additional seating for visitors exploring the grounds.
- A pear orchard will be planted below the main historic rockery. Such an orchard is shown in the map created in 1873 for the sale of the property, but it has long disappeared. The fruit trees were planted on a hillside, considered an advantageous way to plant. Deer protective fencing has been installed, and the trees were planted this spring. These trees are heirloom varieties common to New York State that include a mix of pears intended for immediate eating, cooking and canning, or extremely hard pears that could overwinter in cold storage. New fruit trees come in a very small size, about three feet high, so it will take a good ten years until these trees look like a true orchard and are above the deer browsing line. The original pear orchard served a double purpose as it provided fruit for the use of the estate, but the trees also screened the view from the rockery of the large kitchen garden immediately below.
- A Camperdown elm will be planted at the end of May. This is an elm with a weeping shape; there is one on the main drive just beyond Lyndhurst’s entrance. Historically, this tree was planted just to the north of the fork in the pathway that leads to the main rockery. The tree was surrounded by a hexagonal bench and likely provided views of the river and the pear orchard. The area is being raised with additional soil, the bench has been constructed and painted, and, pending appropriate weather, the tree will be dug up from its current location and replanted at Lyndhurst.
- The Rock Garden Society is planting a new rock garden immediately behind the two-tiered bench in the main rockery. In the 1873 map, a field of rocks is visible immediately behind the bench. These rocks have been put back in place, and the rock garden society will plant the bed with appropriate plants.
- General plantings in the lower landscape are being sourced and will go in during late May and June. These will be primarily trees and shrubs, 80% of which are native species. Since Lyndhurst archivists have so much documentary evidence from the mid-19th century (maps and photographs), the trees that have been selected replace original ones that are documented on the property. Lyndhurst was almost always a park-like estate populated primarily with trees and shrubs, many of them flowering from April through mid-July. Except for the greenhouse and flower gardens, which were used to provide cut flowers to the mansion and the Gould’s New York City townhouse, there were never many open flower beds on the property except in areas around the greenhouse.
- When restored, Lyndhurst will recreate 100 years of American landscaping taste, from 1840 to 1940. “We are only updating plants where equivalents are no longer available, where climate change has made them ungrowable, when invasives were used in the path,” explains Zar. “However, we are not trying to create a garden that reflects contemporary tastes or creating new landscaping schemes using a star landscape architect. This restoration is intended to provide an accurate sense of what these early landscapes would have looked like and how people used them to cool off in the summer and enjoy picturesque views of the property and the river in the days before television existed.”
Visitors to Lyndhurst are advised to keep returning to this magnificent river estate in the coming months and years to witness these transformations: the building and grounds restorations, newly planted trees, shrubs and flower beds, relocated repaired statuary, and reconstructed rockery benches to discover the wonder of strolling through an enchanted 19th century estate landscape.