Canandaigua isn’t exactly around the corner, but close enough you can make delightful day trip to visit an unreasonably beautiful place, Sonnenberg Gardens. After all, “Within Reach” varies with who you are and how far you want to reach.
Hidden away in a quiet residential area of the village of Canandaigua is a 52 acre retreat of greenhouses, flowers, wide open spaces, immense trees of every description, topped off by a 40 room mansion at the highest point of the property.
Entering the grounds from Charlotte St, we follow a winding road between small buildings and trees until we come to the entrance. For a modest fee ($14 per adult, less with AAA and Senior Discounts) you are admitted to the grounds. Trams and guides are available at no charge, and they will eagerly tell you of the history of the grounds and take you wherever you wish.
We started out in the greenhouses and experienced a jungle of exotic plants, some beautiful, some almost scary – one was gray and it felt rather like a dolphin’s skin (its name escapes me) while there were flowers that I had never seen before. Orchids of every color and style, cacti about to bloom and a small fountain pond with huge fish which will come up and greet the caretaker when he brings food.
Following one of the gentle paths, we come to the Japanese Garden with statuary, a tea house streams, ponds and caves. Step stones guide you through the intricately designed landscapes while the little painted turtles watch you, ready to leap back into the water if you get too close. The sense of quiet and an enduring peace grows with every step, which made it one of the Thompson’s favorite retreats within the immense property.
The winding path continues to the Italian Garden with its four sunken beds in the shape of modified Fleur-de-lis, lined up perfectly with the library entrance to the mansion.
The mansion – this is how the very wealthy lived in those days – has doors to the outside in every room, allowing the air to flow freely when the summer days get oppressive. Each room is a museum in itself, showing the daily lives of the residents. The Breakfast Bower, the Grand Staircase lit by a stained glass skylight and the music boxes with the most enchanting and rich sound, tapestries – and the ever present volunteers who will give you a tour, answer questions, or just leave you alone to wander.
A word about the volunteers. This is the first historic site I’ve visited where they will actually leave you alone if you wish. Although they are always nearby to answer questions, they were never in the way or overly protective. Many of the rooms are not “protected”. You can walk in, see and touch the furniture and furnishings – and the collection of antique view cameras. The things that are delicate are marked “Please do not Touch”, or on the antique chairs, “Please do not Sit”.
Another walk through the trees brings you back to the gift shop and the “Finger Lakes Wine Center” where you can sample the nectar of 40 finger lakes vineyards. The bar itself is in a stone lined room, giving you the feeling of actually being in the mansion’s wine cellar.
The gardens are a regular host to weddings and special events, giving those who attend a feeling of being the centerpiece of a piece of history.
Every Friday evening in July and August, you can come for their “Moonlight Strolls” concert series, and there are a myriad of other programs happening – for an up to date list, visit http://www.sonnenberg.org.
Sonnenberg (Sunny Hill in German) was the summer home of Frederic Ferris and Mary Clark Thompson. The couple met in Albany when Mary’s father was serving as Governor of New York. Their primary residence was in New York City, where Frederick was director of the First National Bank of New York, which we all know now as CitiBank, but Sonnenberg was where they felt most at ease.
In 2005, the property was designated a New York State Historic Park, and is open to the public May 1 to October 31 daily. This a place everyone should experience at least once.
For more information, ticket prices and events, visit the website www.sonnenberg.org, or call them at 585-394-4922