ON SITE: Sonnenberg Gardens & Historic Mansion
The last weekend of June, I visited Sonnenberg with a dear friend. We took the weekend to visit some wineries around Seneca Lake and there was no way I could be in the Finger Lakes region and not visit Sonnenberg. It’s one of my favorite places and it was such a joy to share it with a friend.
Sonnenberg: A History
Meaning “sunny hill” in German, Sonnenberg was the summer estate for New York City bank financier Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife Mary Lee Thompson (née Clark). Mary was the daughter of Myron Holley Clark, the governor of New York in 1855. The original brick farmhouse and its 14 acres of land was purchased in 1863. It was demolished and the 40-room Queen Ann-style mansion was built in its place (between 1885-7). Now encompassing 50 acres, the estate also includes greenhouses and observatories, gardens, and a peacock house developed in the early years of the 20th century.
Frederick, having opened the 1st National Bank of the City of New York (surviving today as Citibank) and the Chase National Bank (surviving as part of JP Morgan Chase) died in 1899. Never marrying again, Mary is said to have moved rooms after his death, unable to sleep in the bed they shared without him. He and Mary were big philanthropists, art collectors, and horticulturalists. In April of 1912, Mary took a last-minute trip during her garden tour of Europe to visit a new tulip display in Holland, postponing her trip back to the States; she was set to board the Titanic. Yeah, that Titanic.
She was also an avid collector of Native American basketry and other art, as she maintained an interested in preserving indigenous cultures, especially for the Nations that inhabit(ed) what is now New York state. She was a recipient of the Cornplanter Medal in 1920 for her cultural work. The Mary Clark Thompson Medal, named after her, has been awarded since 1921 for outstanding work in geology and paleontology by the American National Academy of Sciences.
** While the collecting of material culture can help preserve objects, certainly, it can also have the opposite effect with preserving cultures. The best way to help do that is to leave objects with the people who created them. I don’t know the provenance of the woven pieces or under what conditions they were collected, so I take her awards with a grain of salt. **
Our globe-trotting, medal-winning, lady-of-the-flowers was found deceased in the estate in 1923.
The two had no children, so Mary’s nephew inherited the estate when she passed; he sold the property to the Federal Government in 1931, thankful for any money during the Great Depression.
The house was used as living quarters for nurses and doctors at the veteran’s hospital that was then built on the grounds. In 1972, the property was transferred to a local non-profit who worked to restore the home; in 2005 it became historical landmark, recognized by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. What a wild history!
Back to 2021
Since New York state has had one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the country, it was incredibly surreal to be unmasked for the majority of our visit to the Finger Lakes. We were only asked to mask up if social distancing would not be possible. To be honest, it felt like I was breaking the rules that have been in place for over year. But the almost-100-degree-heat made me very happy I wasn’t wearing a mask.
We entered the house from the right side of the house. Once inside, we were greeted by docents right away; they told us to “make ourselves at home”. Throughout our visit, they initiated conversations about items on view in various rooms and pointed out objects across the house to make connections. Visitor Experience at Sonnenberg, if you’re reading this, you should be very proud of your docents. Downstairs, we saw the billiards and trophy room, family dining room, the library, and den.
Upstairs was designated living space compared to the communal nature of the first floor. Like most older and larger homes, the second floor was meant for adults of the home and their guests; servants and children slept on the third floor. Like most historic homes I’ve visited in the past, the third floor was off-limits, most likely because it’s used for storage.
My favorite room in the house is on the second floor. It’s now set up with two small single beds, giving physical space for discussions about children rearing and visiting family members. The walls are wrapped floor-to-ceiling in William Morris’s iconic Pimpernel patterned wallpaper. I have fallen in love with its organized, symmetric chaos of nature. It’s such an odd thing to geek out over, wallpaper, but on this scale, it’s honestly the focal point of the room.
I could write a whole post in appreciation with analysis and historical significance, but I’ll save that for another time.
Each room on the second floor has its own en suite and private covered balcony access. This house is huge and screams of the wealth the family had—especially because this was their summer home. The Thompson’s lived most of their year at 283 Madison Ave., New York, New York (one street east of 5th Avenue).
Outside, there are many gardens, each themed in one way or another. English roses, Pansies, red and yellow annuals, and more make up the gardens. A run-down of these different gardens can be found here.
If you’re in the mood for some wine, some history, and some really cool Victorian-, Art Nouveau-, and Art Deco-era stuff, go check out Sonnenberg Gardens & Historic Mansion. I will highly recommend it to anyone, with one single piece of advice: go during the fall (September/October). Not only is it the off-season for the Finger Lakes, but it’s also going to be so much more enjoyable walking through the gardens.
Bonus point: If you have a student ID that doesn’t have an expiration date printed on it, you can basically get 50% off regular admission. Thank you, KU, for not printing a graduation date.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an emerging art museum curator and educator. She's currently a fellow at the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. If you have questions for her, please send us an email at email@example.com
 Unless someone is from that culture, they are not an expert about what the object is or what it is used for. As museum professionals, we should remain vigilant about object use and be ready for repatriation if need be.