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Sonnenberg faces pandemic deficit

Funds from previous years pay for repairs and other improvements at the historic site

Julie Sherwood
jsherwood@messengerpostmedia.com
The Italian Garden is seen at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua, with the mansion seen in the background.

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CANANDAIGUA — For the first time in 14 years, Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park faces a deficit. The pandemic dried up major sources of earned income such as revenue from events typically held at the landmark tourist attraction in Canandaigua.

Sonnenberg Executive Director David Hutchings said a reserve fund is helping sustain the organization for this year. “We are going to make it through the season,” he said. “And 2021 will be a recovery year.”

Sonnenberg is now open, Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with mansion tours and self-guided tours only on the grounds, and no trams operating. The cafe is open, though there is no wine tasting. Face masks are required in all buildings including the mansion, greenhouses and gift shop. Hutchings said Sonneberg is hosting small bus tours and seeing an increased number of visitors.

Lost income forced Sonnenberg to let go of two staff members, one full-time and one filling a three-quarter position. Hutchings said he is grateful Sonnenberg maintains a strong and dedicated pool of volunteers. The organization currently has seven full-time and two part-time employees.

Despite the pandemic, the gardens were planted and the property repaired. A number of projects were completed over the past six months, using funds from previous years. Improvements involved laying new foundation and brick paths, restoring a fountain pool, repairing a porch roof and plaster in a mansion bedroom, dredging a pond, and building a road for a new compost area.

In addition, construction documents for the new Gibson Street drive entrance were completed with funding secured before the pandemic. Staff and maintenance have been moved to 145 Gibson St.

Hutchings said the funds and plans for a new public entrance, welcome center and related upgrades are in hand. With COVID-19, however, it’s unclear what the timeline is for the project and Sonnenberg will wait to hear from the state.

In 2018, the state added to the existing tourist site the vacant Army Reserve property adjacent to Sonnenberg, along with another parcel at Charlotte and Gibson streets. Acquisition of the former Army property returned that parcel to its roots, as it was once part of the Sonnenberg estate — the lavish 19th-century summer home of Frederick Ferris and Mary Clark Thompson.

The 50-acre site preserves a collection of nine historic theme gardens and interprets and promotes the life, times and legacy of the Thompson family and Victorian-era estate.

A redeveloped 1.6-acre parcel at Charlotte and Gibson streets will create a new, more visible and landscaped gateway with a spacious parking lot and bus turnaround. Creation of a Gibson Street (Route 21) entrance will provide a direct link to the state Thruway, as well as divert traffic from a residential street.

The former Army Reserve building will be rehabbed to include space for additional programming; a welcome/orientation/ticket counter area; a tasting room for Finger Lakes wine and other beverages; a café/bistro; a gift shop; restrooms; and administrative offices. The expansion will also provide space to store and preserve artifacts and other valuables, along with a maintenance facility for vehicles used on the grounds.

The property is state-owned and nonprofit-run. Sonnenberg is one of two public gardens in the New York State Parks System and home to the Finger Lakes Wine Center.

In its annual appeal letter to Friends of Sonnenberg, Hutchings and Sonnenberg Board of Trustees chair Kristen Fragnoli stated the organization seeks support in two areas: Contributions toward operating funds as well as toward matching funds for a grant awarded in January. The grant will fund development of a user-friendly historic collection area for archives, objects and maps of the Thompson estate. Funds will also go toward finishing exterior parking areas to advance Sonnenberg’s new public entrance.

“Our mission is to remain one of our nation’s most extensively preserved estates and a premier tourist destination in Upstate New York,” stated Hutchings and Fragnoli.

The Blue and White Garden is seen with fall blooming clematis at Sonnenberg.