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NSG Visit July 15, 2000

The Historic Grandeur of

Sonnenberg's Mansion and Gardens


Donovan A. Shilling

Sprinkles, then drizzle, and finally all-out rain! That's the weather encountered by 23 members of the New Society of the Genesee on their visit to Canandaigua on Saturday, July 15, 2000. Despite the "liquid sunshine" members paid the seven dollar admission and entered the extensive grounds of the Sonnenberg Mansion and its surrounding gardens. Located at 151 Charlotte Street in the northeast corner of Canandaigua, New York, the fifty-acre site possesses a history as fascinating as the mansion and gardens themselves.

How did such a unique palace-like mansion and grounds come to be situated in Canandaigua? Who built it? Why was knowledge of it's existence almost unknown for over forty years? And who were responsible for its resurrection and present prominence? Both Don Kneeland, a Society member, and our tour guide, Donna Seyfreid, would answer these puzzling questions.

It began in the early 1880's when Miss Mary Clark, daughter of New York State Governor Myron Clark, met Frederick Ferris Thompson, New York City bank founder and eventually collector of an immense fortune. Married soon after, the couple lived in upper-class style in their New York town house. However, Mary, who had lived on East Gibson Street in Canandaigua, missed her summers there.

Thus, in 1887 the Boston firm of Francis Allen was engaged to build a "summer home" in Mary's lakeside city. The site chosen held a two-story brick house which was demolished. The builders erected a Queen Anne style mansion. From the exterior it looks slightly medieval with its leaded-glass bay windows, imposing turret and half-timbered facade. When construction was completed, "it's grandeur and tradition resounded with old world nobility." The Thompsons named it Sonnenberg (Sunny Hill).

A spacious main entrance, complete with an elevator, leads one into the two-story-high great hall. Here a huge fireplace dominates the room also boasting three unique balconies. Arranged around the hall are bear, wolf and wildcat skins and a stuffed peacock. Above the fireplace is an impressive, multi-antlered head of a wapiti (elk).

Adjoining this is a formal dining room with glass doors that swing wide to allow access to the outside terrace called the "breakfast bower." A fountain with a marble back-splash of carved, naked cherubs helped to give the bower a singular Victorian charm.

Returning to the great hall, we were told a remarkable story concerning the sparkling painting of Mary Clark Thompson which hangs above a magnificent, rosewood, Steinway piano. In the early 1900s Mrs. Thompson contracted with an English artist to paint her portrait for $5000. However, the finished painting seemed too ostentatious with its glittering jewelry. Further, her countenance wasn't quite what she'd expected. She declined the portrait. Decades later a friend of her nephew recognized the painting at an English auction of the deceased artist's works. He purchased the portrait for $700, conveying it in turn to the nephew. The nephew donated the almost ninety-year-old painting of his great aunt to the Sonnenberg Mansion & Gardens.

One of the hobbies Mr. Thompson dabbled in was photography. Those restoring the mansion discovered a dusty, wooden box in one of the outbuildings containing scores of glass photographic plates with images of the original rooms. Using these, the restorers have attempted to refurnish the house as closely as possible to their Victorian look.

On the second floor a photo gallery displays early stereoscopic and photographic views of the mansion over the years. What's unique about the bedrooms is that each has a door opening onto an outside balcony. The master bedroom now contains a gift shop. Stepping from there onto an outdoor porch allows visitors to overlook the ground's glorious Italian garden and see glimmering Canandaigua Lake to the south.

The nine formal gardens were developed during a period spanning 1902 through 1919. The early gardens were designed by Ernest Bowditch and John Handrahan. Walkways of bright orange bricks in herringbone patterns lead through the gardens. The Japanese garden, designed by Mr. Wadanori, is entered through a Tori gate over a bridge to a Japanese-style tea house. The garden's distinctive placement of patterns of rocks, sand, plants and water instill serenity.

Frederic Thompson died in 1899 and his wife in 1923. They had no children; she left Sonnenberg to a nephew but he was financially unable to maintain it. The Thompsons had hired 80 to 120 maids, seamstresses, gardeners, cooks, cleaners, and others to staff Sonnenberg. In 1931 the Federal government took the property and established a Veteran's Hospital on the grounds. The mansion was used as living space for nurses and doctors. Patients at the hospital helped to clear forty years of undergrowth that had completely hidden the gardens, statuary and walks from view.

In 1973 Sonnenberg Gardens was created as a not-for-profit, state-chartered, educational corporation. Forty dollar annual memberships are supporting volunteers and staff in their efforts to continue the restoration projects. The Smithsonian Institute has stated:

"Sonnenberg Gardens is one of the Most Magnificent Late-Victorian Estate Gardens in America."
© 2002, Donovan A. Shilling
Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, a 50-acre estate at 151 Charlotte Street in Canandaigua, is open daily from mid-May until mid-October. Admission is $8.00 for adults, $3.50 for children, 4 -12. Tram service for disabled and elderly is free. For information on upcoming fall and winter activities visit or call (716) 394-4922.
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