SONNENBERG GARDENS, A TITANIC STORY

SONNENBERG: A VISIT TO A DIFFERENT TIME

By Warren D. Jorgensen

I took a break from a Finger Lakes wine tasting tour to visit Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, stepping into a reliquary of a gilded age, discovering a woman whose love of flowers may have saved her life.

In 1857, Mary Clark, daughter of then-Governor Myron Clark married Frederick Ferris Thompson, co-founder of what would become Citibank. In 1863, While living at the Thompson family home in New York, they purchased a 20-acre farmstead amid the hills overlooking Canandaigua Lake in the heart of what is now New York wine country, where she had been born and raised. They called it Sonnenberg, and they summered here, enlarging it to fifty acres with an adjacent 200-acre working farm. In 1887 they completed the two year construction of their dream home.

It was the age of grand designs and Adirondack Great Camps, when the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts influenced by the European nobility they sought to emulate, built country homes and rustic retreats from Maine to Key West. Sonnenberg was the Clark’s grand camp of grand camps, a three story Romanesque monument of hand cut medina sandstone and wood, with its turrets, arches and porticos exuding a touch of Tudor influence.

They surrounded it with an entertainment center, bowling alley, nine hole golf course, a Roman bath and tennis courts. Frederick pursued his love of photography, documenting those years between its completion and his death in 1899. Alone, Mary turned to her gardens, creating a world to suit her tastes. She traveled widely, making nine trips to Europe and the Orient, bringing back furniture, decorations, artwork and ideas to add to her self-created world. She had the house wired for electricity and installed a one-person elevator, the first in this part of the state.

She hired Engineer/Landscaper James Hanrahan and with imported crews and designers created nine gardens, each of a different design, to surround the house. She had built a twelve-foot-high, foot-thick wall to contain her deer herd, and housed her collection of 891 jays parrots, peacocks and pheasants in her aviary, free to fly in the two massive flight cages.

She entertained the likes of Thomas Edison, a close family friend, Union generals and the New York financial community here until her death in 1923.

She left no children, no heirs. The estate was willed to a nephew, who sold it to the Veteran’s Administration in the face of crushing taxes  in 1932.  A hospital was built on the farm property, the mansion was converted to nurse’s quarters, the outbuildings and flight cages razed, the pools and baths filled in, and most of the gardens sodded over. What remained suffered from benign neglect and went fallow. In 1972, congress signed the grounds and mansion back over to private hands, and the Sonnenber Gardens, a non-profit institution, began the restoration.

I enter the grounds through what remains of the greenhouse complex that once sheltered the fruits, vegetables and flowers that the Thompson’s would ship back to their New York home every week–now converted to a restaurant–and pass on the trolley tour that seems out of place for so tranquil a setting.

Map in hand, I stroll throughout the Japanese Garden, with it’s lily pond, bridge-covered streams, waterfalls and serene pools, past the tea-house changing room–replicated from larger one she saw in Kyoto–and the statue of Buddha that caused such a sensation when it was transported through the streets of Canandaigua on it’s arrival here. Today, it is serving as a backdrop for a wedding photographer, which seems so apropos.

Further on, I find it hard to imagine the American Victorians frolicking in the Roman Baths, which have still not been completely restored, but they did, whiling away those hot summer pre-air conditioning afternoons. The imagination reels at what might have gone on here. Engineer James Hanrahan did such a good job on the maze-guarded Sub Rosa or Secret Garden that I cannot find it, and stroll through the Rose, Pansy, Moonlight and Rock Gardens, all in bloom, the air rendolent with their aromas.

I step out from a tree-shaded path to the centerpiece of the grounds: the ornate Italian Garden, laid out like a huge planted carpet at the west side of the three story, forty room mansion. It is sectioned into four quadrants, each a carpet of perennials designed in a fleur-de-lis pattern under the guardianship of Hercules slaying the Hydra. Planted on an axis with the huge one story high library doors, the Thompson’s own second story quarters, and the west-facing rooms of favored guests, the gardens pay homage to the medieval designers of renaissance Italy, where much of modern garden design has its roots.

It is impossible to just walk through the gardens, created by in those halcyon days of an America on the brink of a new century, without stopping, sitting, and admiring the delicacy and aura those long dead designers created. The blending of garden to fountain to field, the trellised walkways, gargoyles and friezes, the three lever wrought iron gazebo, and of course the house itself all seem to meld together, each complimenting the other so effortlessly. It all seems so natural, and it was almost destroyed

What is now the library had been turned into four bedrooms and a hallway by the veteran’s Adminstration. When the rooms were taken down, they found that the mouldings and arches had been built around, rather than gutted, and the library remains much the same today as it did in 1923. The hard part had been removing the VA paint from the hand-tooled leather wallpaper, though. In general, it was well cared for. "I like it. It looks lived in” said a woman ahead of me.

I enter the waiting area and stroll through the Great Room, with its floor-through ceiling and much of Mary’s original furniture. And it does. Designed by architect Francis Allen in the Queen Anne style, with the common rooms on the ground floor, guest suites-each with it’s own balcony–on the second, and and children’s rooms on the third.

It is not too hard to imagine a Victorian candle-lighted soiree, the tinkle of fine crystal, the swish of crinoline, the murmur of muted voices blending with the music of a string quartet from the musician’s balcony of above the moosehead-graced walk-in fireplace, here on the site of what had once been a Seneca Indian village.

The library has been completely restored, and although we can’t enter, it looks just as it did then, book lined walls surrounding the period furniture, ready for a quiet evening and a good read. As does the dining room, the table laid with crystal, bone china and silver, candlabra reflecting on the sliding glass doors that open onto the trellised breakfast bower, with its Roman sarcaphogus.

I am drawn to the Trophy Room, where I expect to find the stuffed raging bears and trophy mounts of world-wide hunts; instead, I find that it was Mary’s own trophies that she saved here, a cornucopia of her world travels: her hand carved ebony writing desk, her collection of jades, porcelains, fans and objets D’art. The desk is here, but she bequeathed all else to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York State Museum.

She kept no diaries, wrote no journals, and most of the original furniture is long gone. The restoration has been completed using donated period pieces and re-creations based on Frederick’s photographs. The Thompson’s own bedroom with its–as was the Victorian custom–separate bathrooms, overlooks the garden and the south lawn. From their balcony, we can see Canandaigua lake in the sun-suffused distance, the soft rolling hills of Western New York, where the landscape is dotted with the red barns and white silos of small family farms, probably the only part of the state where a traveler can still see these vestiges of another era. What is here, open to the public as it was in her lifetime, is what she created out of her love art, beauty, and of course, flowers. It was a love that probably saved her life.

En route home while on a trip to Europe, she heard of a Tulip bulb display in Holland. Not to miss that, she canceled he scheduled voyage, and the Titanic sailed without her.#WDJ