On Thursday, July 14th, I had the pleasure of taking a nice day-trip to Sonnenberg Gardens with the Busy Buddies group. We got on a bus in the morning and it took us to Canandaigua to the “Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park” for the day. We toured the grounds and mansion on our own, met up for lunch, and enjoyed a group wine tasting after lunch. It was such a lovely day!
Sonnenberg Gardens is a 50 acre estate located in Canandaigua, NY at the north end of Canandaigua Lake in the beautiful Finger Lakes. The mansion and gardens are open to the public from late spring into mid fall.
Looking across one of nine gardens to the mansion
Manned with our stickers as proof of admission, we got off the bus and started to explore!!!
BUT FIRST: A bit of a history lesson about the mansion, gardens, and the family who created it all (I hope you’ll read this part – I did a lot of research for it…..but, if you really don’t care and are only here for the photos, scroll down – hahaha):
The property was once the summer home of Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife Mary Clark Thompson. Fredrick was a prominent NY City banker – one of the co-founders of what is now known as Citibank and JPMorgan Chase Bank. Mary was the daughter of former NY Governor Myron Holley Clark. The couple married in 1857 in Canandaigua. Their primary residence was in New York City, but Mary was born in Naples, NY and grew up in Canandaigua with her family. So, when the couple looked for a summer home, they looked to Canandaigua and found and purchased a 300 acre farmstead named Sonnenberg (Sunny Hill) near Canandaigua Lake. In 1887, the Thompson’s raised the original farmhouse and build the 40 room Queen Anne style mansion that remains on the property today. Mr. Thompson passed in 1899 – just 12 years after they built their beautiful summer home. Mary Thompson continued to summer in the mansion till her death in 1923 at the age of 89 at Sonnenberg. After Mr. Thompson’s death, Mary created the elaborate gardens on the estate between 1902 and 1919 – there were originally nine different gardens of varying styles. Mary was very active in women’s suffrage and was a very generous philanthropist – donating millions to various civic, religious, and educational institutions throughout New York and, in particular, the community of Canandaigua. She was one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave extensive endowments to Vassar College, Williams College, and what is now known as Columbia University. She was also a strong supporter of the Bronx Zoo and Women’s Hospital. Canandaigua was the primary focus of her philanthropy: she established and built the F. F. Thompson Hospital in 1903, the Woodlawn Cemetery Chapel, a swimming school on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, a retirement home she named for her parents – the Clark Manor House, and donated land and money for the city’s post office, as well as contributed to a wide range of other projects and charities throughout Canandaigua.
The Thompsons were never blessed with children. Upon Mary’s passing in 1923, a nephew inherited the estate, who left it unmaintained until 1931 when he sold it to the Federal Government. The government built a veteran’s hospital on the adjacent farmland (currently the Canandaigua VA Medical Center) and used the mansion to house doctor’s families and some nurses. The gardens, unfortunately fell into ruins during this time. In 1972, an act of Congress transferred the mansion and surrounding grounds (the remaining 50 acres) from the Federal Government to a local non-profit organization formed to restore and reopen the property. It was opened to the public in 1973. In 2005, the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation bought the estate, but it is still operated by the non-profit agency created to restore it. They operate solely by volunteers and receive no state or federal funding. Six year round staff and 170 seasonal volunteers work to maintain the property and operates from funds raised from limited sources: visitor admission fees, annual memberships and donations, grants, public or private special events, and seasonal retail gift and wine center sales.
Fun Fact: The mansion facade is rusticated graystone with our very own MEDINA SANDSTONE!!!
In addition to the nine gardens and mansion, the Finger Lakes Wine Center is also located on the property and is open for wine tastings and purchase of wines and gifts. Also, the former Gardener’s House is now a cafe that serves light lunches.
Sources for this info was the Sonnenberg Gardens web site and various related Wikipedia sites.
NOW ON WITH THE DAYTRIP INFO:
It was a perfect day for a daytrip — it was cool-ish (low 70s) with a slight breeze – it was actually a bit too cool when the clouds came out, but the sun did help keep it warm enough to enjoy and cool enough to walk around. The forecast said no rain, but we were a bit worried as we were driving along and the dark clouds started forming and it even started raining in a town not far from Canandaigua. But, Mother Nature took pity on us and the only time it actually rained while we were there was while we were inside eating lunch! Woo Hoo!!!
Let me just get one thing out of the way — we were a bit disappointed in the gardens. They are not maintained like I imagine Mary Thompson maintained them. While not in HORRIBLE shape, they are in desperate need of some tender loving care. But….to put it in perspective – remember I said the nephew left the property in disrepair and sold it to the Federal Government who ran it as a VA hospital for many years and the non-profit who took over the restoration only got involved in the early 70s – with no outside funding and mainly volunteers and then the “Covid years”…..I guess they are actually in pretty good shape, considering! The layout of them is amazing and some were in much better condition than others — I could imagine how stunning they must have been back in Mary’s day.
The Japanese Garden was by far my favorite – so beautiful. I could picture myself spending hours sitting in that garden reading and communing with nature! 🙂
There were MANY trees around the property. We were told that guests that came to stay with Mary often wanted to bring her gifts. She generally refused, but gave in by saying that they could bring a tree from their home location to be planted on the property. The result is trees from all around the world thriving on Sonnenberg!
The mansion is awesome! Many of the original furnishings and belongings of Frederick and Mary are still out on display. I marveled at the size and opulence of it all – and it was just a summer home! I think of a summer home and I think of a small cottage on the lake! hahaha But – the rich love their huge mansions for summer homes – I was in awe of the ones I saw in Newport, RI. This one is just as stately!
Because I didn’t want to mess my knee up so early in the day, I toured the ground floor, but didn’t go upstairs. My friend, Pat, did and she told me it was spectacular – each bedroom has it’s own bathroom and huge walk in closet / dressing room. The mansion had 40 rooms in all – WOW!!! While Pat explored the upstairs, I had a wonderful time sitting on the huge wrap-around front porch. I picked a comfortable rocking chair and enjoyed the breeze and the view.
The plaque on the chair spoke to me……”Story Teller At Heart”! hahaha
My view from the rocking chair on the porch
After touring the mansion, we gathered for lunch at the former Gardener’s House, which is now utilized as a Café that serves light lunches. We were given the choice of three wraps ahead of time – a veggie, smoked turkey, or chicken Caesar. I chose the smoked turkey. And…..I have to say, lunch just may have been the highlight of the day…..well, at least a close tie with the mansion and the wine tasting – hehehe! What the Café lacked in ambience, it FAR made up for with the food!!!
Our starter was a chilled melon and berry soup…..now, I do love a good chilled soup and was excited to see it set in front of me, but I’ll tell you it just may have been one of the best I’ve ever had….I would have been very happy if all they did was plop a huge bowl of it in front of me and served me nothing else! It was absolutely amazing — a yogurt based soup with cantaloupe and likely other melons pureed and a variety of berries on top……YUM!!! I dug in and forgot to take a photo until all the blueberries were gone, but you get the idea from the photo below – only complaint – there was not enough of it – I definitely wanted MORE!!!
Then, the sandwiches came —- instead of a tortilla wrap, the sandwiches were wrapped in a delicate crepe! WOW — what a wonderful idea! It had the smoked turkey, lettuce, red onion, and a roasted red pepper mayo. It was a knife and fork kinda sandwich and it was sooooooo good!!!! Again – I could have eaten another one, it was so yummy! It was served with fresh, dressed tomatoes and a carrot. AWESOME!
Dessert was a choice of cookies or brownies – I chose the chocolate chocolate chip cookie – it was “to die for” good! We also had iced tea as our beverage.
After lunch, we gathered in the Finger Lakes Wine Center right there on the property for a wine tasting. The wine center is located in what used to be Mary’s root cellar. It was a nice room – quaint, yet a bit musty – with a STUNNING stained glass window at the far end – it was the first thing we saw when we got to the bottom of the steps going into the tasting room.
We didn’t use this entrance – they took us in through the gift shop, which was on the front side of this building
We were served six different wines for tasting – all were very good – I enjoyed every one of them. The first four were Sonnenberg’s own wines. They only sell them there on the property in the gift shop – you can’t find them anywhere else – pity! The first was Sonnenberg Summer House Dry White. Then we tried the Sonnenberg Belvedere Dry Red – I don’t usually like a dry red, but this was very tasty. Our third tasting was Sonnenberg Mary Red Semi-dry – this one the volunteer who was serving us said was a mix of red and white grapes with none of the tannins that cause head aches in some people and people who are not a fan of reds, do usually like this one – I liked it, but it was actually my least favorite. The fourth was the Sonnenberg Garden Rose – a semi-sweet rose. Then we had two that were from other Finger Lake Region wineries: Niagara Landing Hot Pepper Wine – this one surprised me – I asked for just a tiny amount cause I don’t usually do well with hot peppers and this is infused with Habaneros!!! But — it was amazing!!! I was sorry I only got about a 1/4 of a tasting…..but, my friend didn’t care for it, so I finished hers! hahaha So good! It was sweet, but you got that little bit of heat at the end! Our last tasting was Glenora Wonderous Watermelon Wine — WOW — great one to end the tasting on – strong watermelon flavor – amazing! The guy who served us our tastings was a volunteer and was very knowledgeable about wines in general, and more specifically, the Finger Lakes Region wines and on Sonnenberg Gardens and Mary, as well. It was a very enjoyable time in the root cellar! 🙂
Also on the property are several greenhouses – one devoted to orchids, one full of succulents, and more!
This is the entrance to a complex of connecting green houses that were fabulous! I was just going to poke my head in and get a couple photos, but I’m so glad I strolled through them all — awesome!
The Bay House is the gift shop and wine center and there are more greenhouses beyond it
After the wine tasting, some wandered the grounds more so they could see gardens they didn’t see the first time around and some sat to relax and take in the gorgeous afternoon. We boarded our bus to return home at 3:30 and arrived back in Albion about 4:45-ish. It was, indeed, a lovely day — so glad I had the opportunity to go! A true local gem, for sure!