NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - Something about the Great Forgotten Garden Party didn’t quite feel real.
My first inclination was to describe it as a rather elaborate movie set, but doing so would be a disservice to the genuineness of the event; despite the departure from everyday life, nothing was held together by clever editing tricks and artificial backdrops. There was no deception. Every aspect that worked so well to transport guests away from their worries and daily responsibilities had a degree of authenticity.
And while it was difficult to believe the party existed just a short train ride away from New York City, believing in magic had never been easier. Even for nonbelievers, the presence of something mystical in the air that night was near-impossible to deny.
With every beautiful summer night comes a common desire to bask in the glow of a sunset, perhaps in the company of good friends and a bottle of wine. Bars with decent outdoor space and crisp seasonal cocktails are plentiful in New York City, but they often tend to be lacking in a certain transformational quality that helps to highlight the true allure of summer. The best seats were claimed long before you arrived, the drinks are too expensive, and someone’s baby won’t stop crying.
By catering to those seeking out more of an escape than the local bar’s patio has to offer, the garden party has had its moment to shine this summer.
At Atlas Obscura’s Great Forgotten Garden Party, any worries about not finding a table or fighting for the bartender’s attention at a crowded counter were eliminated by the sheer vastness of the space. All 43 acres of the Untermyer Gardens were wide-open for the guests’ exploration. “I actually stumbled across Untermyer Gardens when exploring another site in Yonkers almost a decade ago and was completely blown away by the grounds,” said Megan Roberts, general manager of events for Atlas Obscura.
“I knew from my first visit that I wanted to create an experience highlighting them,” she said.
Now in its third year, the Great Forgotten Garden Party draws attendees out of the five boroughs to the city of Yonkers for an extravagant gala, complete with picnics, site-specific performances, and, if you allow yourself to believe in it, magic.
Though that sense of enchantment hit you as soon as you stepped onto the grounds, it didn’t stem from a single easily-identifiable source. It could have been, at least in part, due to the Untermyer Gardens’ storied past.
Developed by prominent American lawyer Samuel Untermyer, the site was designed with the intention of creating the finest gardens in the world. Untermyer filled the Beaux-Arts-style gardens with Grecian-influenced structures, a long staircase descending toward the Hudson River and flanked with Japanese cedars, and a “Temple of Love,” complete with cascading waterfalls and several pools.
Untermyer's project was in part driven by the goal of constructing the perfect setting for his wife’s frequent social events, such as her annual Poetry Society party and more intimate musical theater performances, but the lawyer took a high level of personal interest in the gardens as well.
In February 1928, Better Homes and Gardens described the enchanted gardens as “among the loveliest in America,” praising Untermyer for his horticultural knowledge and explaining how his love of plants grew from his mother’s similar passion for flowers. “This gigantic landscaping task, never quite finished, is an unfailing outlet for his abundant creative energy,” wrote the article’s author, Gove Hambidge.
Unfortunately, it was the enormous scale of this task that allowed the gardens to eventually fall into disrepair. When Untermyer suggested willing the property to his children, they were uninterested in the responsibility of the upkeep. Both the city of Yonkers and the State of New York denied his offer for the land to become a public park, due to potential maintenance costs. Ultimately, Yonkers accepted 70 acres of land upon Untermyer’s death, but the grounds quickly deteriorated.
By the 1970s, nature had reclaimed the land, and the park had acquired a nefarious reputation as a hot spot for satanic cults and ritualistic sacrifices, with frequents reports of torch flames, chanting, and animalistic screams. Locals began referring to the gatehouse as the “Devil’s Hole.” Theories have connected Untermyer Park to the Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz, a Yonkers resident who claimed that his actions were tied to a large-scale cult that held frequent meetings on the grounds.
Standing in the gatehouse at the Great Forgotten Garden Party, it’s easy to feel both a connection to the galas of the gardens’ heyday and the rumored occult happenings of the 1970s. While significant efforts have recently been made toward the restoration of the gardens to their former grandeur, the darker aspects of its past have not been entirely erased from history, adding to the mystical feeling of the property. The gatehouse, for example, is now known as the Ruin Garden, complete with graffiti-covered walls and plantings that deliberately conjure up a sense of abandonment.
“We see our event as an opportunity to pay tribute to the golden era of the Untermyer estate and introduce the beauty and allure of the gardens to new visitors who may have never heard of them before,” said Roberts.
Location is a crucial component of any successful garden party, as is the ability for the party to transport its guests to another time and place entirely.
There's also the Jazz Age Lawn Party, now in its 14th year and one of the clear leaders in the realm of innovative, historically-based outdoor parties. It takes place on Governors Island, an island just south of Manhattan that was previously used as a United States Army post and as a Coast Guard base. The island, accessible only by ferry and absent of any tall, modern buildings, feels far enough removed from the clamor of the city that guests can more readily envision themselves in the 1920s.
“People really open up and get in touch with their inner flapper,” said Michael Arenella, the creator of the Jazz Age Lawn Party.
Though the event inspires its guests to dress up in their interpretations of 1920s style, Arenella shies away from using the word “costume” to describe the party. “It’s really not so much a costume party as it is a lifestyle experience. I think it’s a lot bigger than that and a lot more encompassing than that,” he said, emphasizing that many attendees are passionate about the era year-round.
Theme parties are nothing new to Larisa Fuchs, one of the founders of the underground New York City events newsletter Gemini & Scorpio, who has been throwing immersive, costume-required events since 2002, many with a historical spin. Gemini & Scorpio's Grand Victorian Garden Tea started as an extension of their Grand Victorian Banquet and Ball, which Fuchs describes as "a fully authentic 1830s celebration with a multi-course meal and a full orchestra in a secret ballroom."
The ambiance of the tea party is very much tied to its venue.
"I'd always thought Mount Vernon Hotel Museum was one of the most special places in the city: a 1799 carriage house hidden away in plain sight in Midtown, each room preserved with period furnishings as if the owners had just stepped out to the garden," Fuchs said of the location. The building served as inspiration for the party, as it mimics the type of event that hotel guests may have experienced in the 1830s.
"An afternoon tea with scones and finger sandwiches would be exactly the thing for gentlefolk escaping the bustle of Manhattan," she added, "which, at that time, only extended as far as 14th Street."
In the spirit of transporting guests to the building's history, the dress code suggests any summer garden partywear with a Victorian spin, with all-white, cream, and pastel tones encouraged. To further dissuade any modern casual wear, the event description even includes a link to a Pinterest board to help attendees with their stylistic decisions.
"I have always believed that a party is much more fun when not only the setting and entertainment but the guests themselves are part of the movie-like experience," said Fuchs. "I love the immersive, transformative nature of costume parties: all of us collectively creating the magic of temporarily inhabiting another time period or faraway place, real or imagined. But the real appeal is that we're creating the moment in the now, not trying to relive the past in a stylized manner."
At the Great Forgotten Garden Party, the dress code simply encouraged “festive” wear, and the interpretations of this basic guideline varied greatly.
“We encourage guests to take inspiration from the gardens, their history and the mythological references found throughout the grounds,” said Roberts. “[Garden parties] give adults the opportunity to play dress-up, and there can be something very transportive about a great garden party.”
The encouragement of self-expression at the parties is supported by the welcoming and inclusive nature of their guests. “This event has consistently brought in an incredibly creative and diverse crowd,” Roberts said of Atlas Obscura’s party.
“You have such a beautiful cornucopia of humanity at the Jazz Age Lawn Party,” said Arenella. “I think that’s why we get the volume of people that we do, and I think that’s also why it’s been going on now for 14 years because it’s very welcoming to everyone.”
The diversity of the Great Forgotten Garden Party extends beyond the audience to the performers themselves. “As a working female musician, I am constantly combating the industry’s one-sidedness. When I'm programming talent, it’s important to me that I represent all kinds of backgrounds: a strong female lineup and an LGBTQ presence, for instance,” said Adriana Molello, Marquee Event Associate.
“Not only is it very important during times like these to do so, but honestly, the best parties are always the most diverse,” she continued.
There was no formal stage at the Great Forgotten Garden Party, no barrier between performer and spectator. As you moved around the gardens, the performances moved with you. You’d turn to walk up the Vista staircase and find yourself face-to-face with a singer, creating a much more interactive environment than a straightforward concert. The traveling performances also ensured that guests explored a majority of the space available, rather than staying planted in a single spot for the entire evening.
“As one performance ends, you heard sound from another place in the garden,” said Molello. “There were also several performances where musicians or snake dancers led attendees to different locations, which created movement in the gardens, as well as an element of spontaneity.”
Beyond the musical acts, several side attractions provided constant entertainment to all those in attendance. A bug whisperer helped the bravest of visitors to conquer their fears of tarantulas and snakes, while a biodegradable glitter company kept everyone shimmering underneath the brilliance of a pink and orange sunset. The Suitcase of Wonders dazzled viewers with miniature magic acts, and edible flower cotton candy continued to delight the senses.
“We want to bring guests back to the feeling of playing in a garden as a child. Under every leaf is a discovery; around every corner is something beautiful or surprising,” Roberts said.
There’s no room for boredom at the Jazz Age Lawn Party either, with live music and an abundance of activities ranging from era-appropriate dance lessons to carnival games and an old-time magic show, all adding to the guests' immersion in the time period. “The bands are live acoustic bands, playing instruments and music that’s over 100 years old,” said Arenella.
Even when guests aren’t participating in a specific activity, the spirit of the event leads to a certain level of interaction that pushes beyond what most are used to in their daily life. “People are encouraged to just speak to the person that’s sitting next to them on the blanket. It’s all about romance and meeting people and mingling,” Arenella said.
It’s also about staying in the present moment and staying off iPhones, though Arenella noted that many of the lawn party's attendees don’t require any sort of extra encouragement to put their cell phones away, as they’re already seeking out an escape from their modern-day entrapments.
Roberts saw the Great Forgotten Garden Party playing a similar role for those in attendance that late July evening. “A well-curated experience can feel like a throwback to another era or a foray into a fictional world and always offers a little escape from the day-to-day,” she said.
“It's a bit like being transported into a fairytale land,” said Molello.
Given the popularity of garden parties in recent years, it’s clear that people are looking for that type of respite from their stresses or at least a break from the mundane. In its 14 years of existence, the Jazz Age Lawn Party has grown from a small gathering to a massive celebration of the 1920s. The event’s 15th anniversary next year will mark a return to the ‘20s, and this year’s upcoming event is seen as a countdown to that landmark.
“I’ve seen generation after generation embrace Jazz Age Lawn Party as an important part of their lives year after year. I never expected that,” said Arenella of the event’s success. “That was a wonderful thing to witness.”
If you missed Atlas Obscura's Great Forgotten Garden Party but would like to travel to another era while the weather is still warm, you still have time to get your tickets for the upcoming Jazz Age Lawn Party and Grand Victorian Garden Tea events.