As you stroll through the lovely, manicured formal and informal gardens at Sonnenberg, you can almost envision an elderly Mary Clark Thompson instructing a team of landscape architects on how to create the spectacular gardens on the grounds of her estate. The wealthy Mrs. Thompson, widowed in 1899, had a long-time interest in gardening, along with the money to make her dream a reality.
Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park, located in Canandaigua about a ninety minute drive from Buffalo, is a preserved Victorian-era country estate. It is a great place to spend a leisurely afternoon enjoying beautiful themed gardens, along with an 1880’s mansion.
A brief history
The gardens are located on a 52-acre section of the estate of Frederick and Mary Clark Thompson, who owned the land from 1863 to 1923. The Thompsons were a wealthy family; Frederick was one of the founders of the bank now known as Citibank and Mary was the daughter of New York’s governor. Frederick and Mary married in 1857 and had their primary residence in New York City. Sonnenberg was their summer home, which they purchased in 1863. They replaced the original brick farmhouse with the 40 room Queen Anne style mansion in 1885.
Along with Mary’s interest in gardening, she also collected garden ornaments when she traveled in Europe and Asia. The gardens on the estate were developed between 1902 and 1919.
When Mary died in 1923, her nephew inherited the estate, since the Thompson’s had no children. He in turn sold it to the Federal government in 1931, who used a portion of the land for the veteran’s administration hospital. The mansion was converted into apartments for hospital staff.
In the early 1970’s, a group of concerned citizens formed the Friends of Sonnenberg, and acquired the mansion and grounds, which they restored to its original splendor. The gardens endured some hardships in the late 1990’s; however, the state was able to step in and acquire the property, so it could be preserved for posterity. Sonnenberg was designated a New York State Historic Park in March 2006.
While I visited Sonnenberg a number of times in the past, I hadn’t been there for several years. A few weeks ago, I visited Sonnenberg with my daughter and the grounds and mansion were just as beautiful as I remembered.
The tour of the gardens and mansion is self-guided; be sure to pick up a map. There is a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes. A tram ride to the mansion is available for those unable to walk the gardens.
From admissions, follow the path past the glass 1903 Lord & Burnham designed greenhouse complex and head to the Japanese Gardens, which features a small teahouse building built in 1908. The garden itself was created in 1906 by a Japanese landscape architect and seven workers. The large stone Buddha sitting and contemplating life in the garden is an interesting looking fellow.
Adjacent to the Japanese Garden are the ruins of what once was a Roman bath-style swimming pool. As we continued along the path, we came across the Sub-Rosa Garden. In its day it was a “secret garden”, concealed by a circle of hedges and had to be entered through a hedge maze. You can sit and relax in this garden on the marble benches, which were recently restored.
Since my daughter was following the “Kid’s Trail” booklet, she had to look for clues at each garden to find where a rubber stamp station was located by each one. She stamped her clue book at each garden and when we finished, she was able to collect a prize; in her case, a small pink beach ball.
The Rose Garden, which features red, pink and white roses symmetrically arranged around a central pathway, was in full bloom during our visit. The color scheme is the original one picked by Mrs. Thompson.
The Italian Garden, the first garden to be created in 1903 and the one closest to the mansion, has four sunken beds that resemble the fleur-de-lis pattern. Lots of foliage plants give color to this garden and each year about 15,000 annuals are planted in this area. It is probably one of the most photographed gardens on the estate.
Next, we headed inside the Queen Anne style mansion, a building style popular in the late 19th Century. There is much use of dark wood throughout the forty room home. The furnishings are also quite elaborate. You can spend as much or as little time as you’d like inside, as the tour is also self-guided. However, docents are on hand to answer any questions.
When you come out of the mansion, there are three smaller gardens right behind it; the Blue and White Garden, Mrs. Thompson’s favorite garden, which features all blue and white flowers, the Pansy Garden, which showcases Mrs. Thompson’s favorite flower and the Moonlight Garden, filled with white flowers and silver foliage, which is best viewed at night.
Behind these is the Old Fashioned Garden, which reminded me a little of the colonial gardens you’d see in Williamsburg or Mount Vernon. When the Thompson’s lived here, a castle-like building near this garden housed an aviary with nearly 250 species of birds. White peacocks were kept in the stone peacock house that remains intact.
A short distance away is the Rock Garden. The day we visited, a wedding party was taking photos with the rustic stone summerhouse as a backdrop. Although the rock garden looks like a single garden today, when it was created between 1910 and 1920, there were actually three separate rock gardens. The Rock Garden also features a limestone canyon/grotto, water cascades and ponds, along with meadows and shrub plantings.
Follow the south walkway back to the parking area or take the tram. Before you leave, be sure to stop by the Finger Lakes Wine Center at Sonnenberg, which houses a gift shop, as well as a wine tasting room. Here you can pick up a souvenir of your visit to the gardens, as well as sample and purchase wines from dozens of Finger Lakes Region wineries. The adjacent Garden Café, which serves salads, soups and sandwiches, is open daily 11-5:30.
If you go
Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park (585-394-4922; www.sonnenberg.org) 151 Charlotte Street, Canandaigua. Sonnenberg is open from early May to October, daily 9:30-5:30. Admission is $10 ($9 with AAA or AARP discount). Children 12 and under are free.
Take the New York State Thruway (I-90) east to exit 44, Canandaigua. Follow Route 332 south into the city of Canandaigua. Turn left on Route 21 to Charlotte Street and follow the signs.
If you like Sonnenberg, here are some other Rochester area gardens and parks you might enjoy:
George Eastman House (585-271-3361) 900 East Avenue, Rochester. While the George Eastman House is best know for its International Museum of Photography, the grounds surrounding the house are landscaped with more than 300 historic varieties of flowers, trees and shrubs.
Ellwanger Garden (585-546-7029 Landmark Society) 625 Mount Hope Avenue, Rochester. This garden, operated by the Landmark Society, is only open to the public during the Lilac Festival in May and by appointment rest of year. It was the private garden of noted horticulturist, George Ellwanger, who helped Rochester gain the name “Flower City.”
Rochester Museum and Science Center (585-271-4320) 657 East Avenue, Rochester. While the RMSC is best known for science and history inside, the manicured grounds outside feature a formal herb garden, wildflowers and annuals. Admission to the grounds is free.
Webster Arboretum (585-234-4622) 1700 Schlegel Rd., Webster. This 32 acre garden features 50 varieties of trees and shrubs, as well as an herb garden and five perennial gardens.
Highland Park (585-256-4950) 450 Highland Avenue, Rochester. This 150 acre Olmsted-designed park has over 6,0000 different varieties of plants, including 500 varieties of lilac bushes and a pansy bed with over 10,000 plants. The park’s 1911 Lamberton conservatory has tropical and seasonal plants.
Maplewood Park, Lake Avenue, Rochester. This Olmsted-designed park has one of the nation’s largest rose gardens, with over 3,000 bushes. The annual Rose Festival takes place in June.