My recent Travels to Rochester took me through the beautiful Finger Lakes district. It reminds me of the Swiss lakes and the countryside outside of Geneva, where beautiful farms, vineyards and stately homes were built for pleasure and commerce, overlooking wonderful vistas. Lake Canandaigua is one of the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but just north of it are the remains of, a once, mighty garden.
Sonnenberg was built in the 1880s as a summer home by Mary Clark Thompson and her husband Frederick Ferris. Mary was the daughter of New York Governor Myron Holly Clark. Mary’s banker husband, who established what we now know as CITI Bank died young. Mary, who had buckets of money, spent them on this and other properties she owned. The results were a wonder of the Gilded Age. A Queen Anne style mansion surrounded by French, Italian, Japanese, formal, and informal garden rooms filled with fine statues and fountains that ramble in an estate, farm, and conservatory complex that measured over 200 acres.
Mary died in 1923. Due to lack of a direct heir, the property was inherited by a nephew who sold it in 1931 to establish a Veteran’s Administration facility. During this time, the house was used as nurse’s quarters and many outbuildings were demolished including the cage of a peacock pavilion. Mary had quite a collection, as was the fashion, and was known to house over 216 species of birds!
In the 1973, Sonnenberg Gardens, a non-profit took title of the Mansion and most of the formal gardens, 52 acres. Today Sonnenberg Gardens and the State of New York operate this historic property for the benefit of the public and future generations. Much work has been done and much, much, more is needed and is underway to restore this eclectic house and gardens. If you visit, you will probably have it mostly to yourself, as we did, but then, we were not there in peak season. Regardless, it is a wonderful place to discover and explore.