staying in Canandaigua we were told by several people that we
absolutely couldn't miss seeing the Sonnenberg Mansion and
Gardens. We picked a mostly sunny day and went out to the
Mansion. According to their information, Sonnenberg is one of the
most extensively preserved country estates to survive from the
late Victorian era in America. The spectacular Queen Anne style
mansion was built in 1887 as the summer home of Frederick Ferris
Thompson and his wife, Mary Clark. There are nine formal gardens,
surrounding the mansion, which were created between 1902 and
1919. The Thompsons led a life typical of the upper class
during this period. Their main residence was in New York City
where Frederick Thompson was a founder and director of one of the
most successful banks of the 19th century, today known as
Citibank. He was an amateur photographer, printer, and
philanthropist interested in education and the arts.
Mary Clark Thompson was left a widow in 1899, and she spent the rest of her life traveling the world supporting philanthropies with an emphasis on helping women and creating the gardens of Sonnenberg. She entertained many famous guests, maintained the most extensive private aviary in the country, and generously opened the grounds at Sonnenberg to visitors on a regular basis until her death in 1923.We were told that when she first opened the grounds she would sometimes serve tea to the public that were viewing the estate.
In 1972 a group of private citizens created a private, non-profit organization called Friends of Sonnenberg. They created the organization in order to acquire the Sonnenberg Gardens estate, restore it and reopen it to the public. They have 50 acres which was formerly part of the Veterans Administration Hospital property. The Hospital is built on the Sonnenberg farmland. From about 1931 to early 1970's the mansion was used by the administration as nurses housing (if you look closely over the doors you can still see some of the room numbers.) A number of the larger rooms were actually partitioned off into several rooms. After the VA no longer needed the mansion for this purpose they agreed to allow the Sonnenberg Gardens organization to buy the 50 acres of the original Sonnenberg Estate for $1.00. This agreement was actually signed into law by President Nixon. The actual transfer of the property happened in 1973 and it was opened to the public early summer of that year. They began with restoration of the various gardens and the also of the mansion.
Going through the house was like a walk back into time. The house itself was beautiful. The woodwork throughout the rooms was dark, but beautifully crafted. I particularly liked what had originally been the master bedroom. It had doors that opened onto a small balcony that overlooked the main entrance hall. I could just picture the Master or Mistress of the house looking down on the great hall "checking out" visitors. In the hallway were two beautiful portraits of Mr. & Mrs. Thompson, obviously painted in their younger years. The great hall itself was very impressive as it held a number of memorabilia brought back from various parts of the world.
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