The E. B. Morgan House, a luxurious lakeside retreat
“The years teach much which the days never know.” We found this bit of inspiration, penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, on our pillows along with chocolate truffles the first night of our stay at the historic E.B Morgan House in Aurora, New York. At the time, we didn’t realize how prophetic those words had become in this little village. . . .
Dan and I had spent most of the day driving through the gently rolling hills of New York’s Finger Lake region which is dotted with vineyards. Our destination was Aurora which sits on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. Here, we found historic mansions stretched along tree-lined Main Street where hydrangeas border manicured lawns. We feasted on exquisite cuisine, bought fresh bread and artisan cheese at the village market, and captured the scent of childhood memories as the boards creaked in an old-time hardware store. We strolled through the campus of Wells College where ivy grips red brick like fond memories cling to the hearts of its former students.
One of those students, Pleasant (Thiele) Rowland, a 1962 graduate, remembers being “touched by the timeless remove of this place, far from the hustle and bustle of the world beyond. …” In the coming days, we’d learn more about Ms. Rowland’s memories and how her generosity breathed new life into a village that has suffered through tough times. Meanwhile, we hoped to make memories of our own.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the E.B. Morgan House, a 19 century stone mansion perched above the lake. Before entering, its grand porch transported us to a slower time when folks chatted with neighbors, played croquet on the lawn, and set the world right over lemonade. Okay, I’ll admit, we were actually sipping a Riesling in this scenario; after all, we were in the state’s premier wine region which is known for its world class white wines.
We were greeted in the grand foyer by gracious innkeeper Dale Whittaker, who took hospitality to a whole new level during our three-day stay. He welcomed us by name, like old friends, and instantly made us feel at home. Before escorting us to our room, he gave us a tour of the living area while talking passionately about the home’s history and its recent renovations. Guests have access to the parlor, dining room, library, and a butler’s pantry where fresh coffee and muffins are served each morning. Dale noted that the Aurora Inn is just a few steps away for guests who want a heartier breakfast.
The Italianate-style home was built in 1858 by Edwin Barber “E.B.” Morgan, an entrepreneur who made his fortunes in the lake trade industry and other ventures. The mansion is graced with period furnishings and accented throughout with an eclectic mix of modern art. The creative energy of its explosive pallet of sunset colors broke the boundaries of anything I’ve seen. A veranda overlooks the lake where guests enjoy spectacular sunsets. We couldn’t wait to uncork a New York varietal, relax in comfy chairs, and take it all in.
The historic inn features seven elegant guest rooms, decorated to play off of each other with the same heavy floral pattern in various colors. Our appointment was 203, which has a breathtaking view of the lake. The spacious room was once Mr. Morgan’s master suite and features a queen-size canopy bed, fireplace, marble bathroom with double showers, luxury linens from Italy, plush bathrobes and other pampering amenities. My eyes fixed on the artwork above the fireplace, an abstract masterpiece of three paint cans – one full, one unopened, and the other empty. It was certainly a study among the home’s turn-of-the-century grandeur, but come morning I embraced its timelessness.
Dale said the home stayed in the Morgan family until 1961 when it was donated to Wells College. Soon, the home became the “French House” because it provided housing for students who studied French. While living here, the girls could speak only French, according to Dale. How appropriate, I thought, that the soothing voice of Nana Mouskaeri’s “Viva la Rose,” filled the room. Coincidentally, Dale also majored in French.
The grand home is one of three properties that make up The Inns of Aurora. In the coming days, we’d hear much about the other two, the Aurora Inn, also built by Morgan and later donated to the college, and the Leffingwell House, built in the early 1800s and recently purchased by Ms. Rowland.
Dale mentioned that complimentary wine and cheese is available in the butler’s pantry each evening. Presenting us with keys to the mansion, he assured us that he’d be around if we needed anything, and he was – amazingly anticipating our needs without a hint of intrusion. By the way, our room number was never mentioned again during our stay. Dale always referred to us by name. We weren’t simply “the guests in 203,” a courtesy which we don’t take for granted.
After a quick freshening-up, we went downstairs and poured ourselves a glass of wine from the bottle that Dale had uncorked -- an exceptional Sangiovese from Long Point Winery, a family-owned vineyard south of town. We helped ourselves to an array of local, artisan cheeses he had set out alongside multihued, fluted plates. Since Dan and I aren’t aficionados of fine ceramics, we didn’t know that the handcrafted dishes were a regional specialty from MacKenzie-Childs, a world-reknowned home furnishing and décor store, a mile north of the inn.
That evening, we dined at the Aurora Inn, a few doors away, which offers elegant cuisine rooted in local ingredients. The inn is committed to the farm-to-table movement and has its own charcuterie where most of its meat is prepared. They also serve a variety of local wines. Dan and I ordered beef tenderloins, served with smoked fingerling potatoes and charred broccoli, all smothered in a delicate gouda soubise. We chose a Long Point cabernet franc to compliment the meal – a nice choice. While waiting for our entrees, the chef surprised us with a small plate of venison scallopini, breaded in rosemary and artfully presented with a pansy garnish. Although I'm a bit game-phobic, this dish was incredible, as was our entire dining experience.
We returned “home” in time to watch the sun’s deep orange glow drowse lazily over the lake before setting. Chatting with other guests on the veranda, we enjoyed a few glasses of wine, and following nature’s lead, we called it a day.
In the morning, we awoke to bird melody as the sun sparkled on the lake below. My eyes gravitated toward the painting in our room. Thanks to Dale’s research, I learned that “Three Cans” was painted by Raimonds Strapens, an abstract artist who focuses on everyday objects. The painting offers a sensitive insight into the choices we make each day. For us, the day would be open and full, like the can on the left. We looked forward to visiting area wineries and enjoying other touristy things.
First, we enjoyed coffee and muffins on the front porch while watching this little town of 700 residents wipe the sleep from its eyes. A few folks walked by with their dogs, bidding us a good morning. A lad strolled by with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder – a scene right out of Mayberry USA. Later, we enjoyed breakfast on the veranda of Aurora Inn as small fishing boats churned past. We spent the day sipping award-winning wines at several area wineries -- most memorable are King Ferry, Long Point, Buttonwood Grove, Thirsty Owl and Sheldrake Point.
On the way home that evening, we stopped at MacKenzie-Childs. We were curious to see why folks travel worldwide to shop at the famed center. A long lane took us to the store where willow trees sweep the banks of Cayuga Lake and Scottish Highland cattle graze in the meadow nearby. We parked the car, eager to explore the pastoral setting. But “curiouser and curiouser” comes to mind when trying to describe the moment our eyes feasted on the whimsy of this unique place. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she “forgot to speak good English.” The high-end store offers a colorful invitation to come in and play, yet it begs you to wear your best dress. If you go, be sure to watch the 15-minute video tour which takes you behind the scenes to see artisans at work in the studio. And tour the Victorian farmhouse which showcases the store's whimsical offerings throughout 15 rooms. All that was missing was the Mad Hatter saying, “Would you like some wine?”
Later, we stopped for a burger and beer at Fargo Bar and Grill, the local watering hole. The chef offers daily specials, and guests can enjoy a game of pool while waiting for their food to arrive. The bar also has a horseshoe pit for those who want to stick around awhile. Another dazzling sunset emerged as we enjoyed a chub of sausage, a few local cheeses and some crusty bread -- all washed down with another Long Point Sangiovese.
One morning over coffee, we met with Meryl Davis, director of marketing for The Inns of Aurora – the three luxurious retreats that have been refurbished in recent years thanks to Pleasant T. Rowland’s multimillion dollar gift to the community. "We were blessed with a tremendous donor who wanted to keep our properties beautifully restored and historically correct,” she said.
She also told us about two visionaries whose philanthropic success contributed to the town’s rich history. E.B. Morgan grew up in Aurora and capitalized on the town’s bustling port industry in the 19 century, a time of peace and prosperity in America. In 1933, he built the Aurora Inn which was a popular stop for weary travelers in the shipping industry. On the docks, behind the inn, he met Henry Wells, one of the founders of the American Express and Wells, Fargo companies. The two became friends and business partners in several ventures. When Wells mentioned his dream of building a liberal arts college for girls, Morgan helped bring that dream to reality. Wells College opened in 1868, and with Morgan as its main benefactor the institution flourished.
As a student, Ms. Rowland of Madison, Wisconsin was enamoured with the village and its “values and traditions of another, more tender time.” After graduation, she too became an entrepreneur, founding the American Girl Company. When she returned to Aurora 25 years later, she was disheartened to see boarded up windows and paint peeling on buildings that once graced Main Street. She learned that the inn had been closed off and on over the years due to financial struggles. She partnered with the college to form The Aurora Foundation and invested millions to restore the three properties that make up The Inns of Aurora, and several other buildings to their former glory. The town’s transformation has been documented in “Aurora in Five Years” with photos by Jacqueline Conderacci. Meryl also noted that Ms. Rowland rescued one of the town’s top employers, MacKenzie-Childs, from bankruptcy, saving 240 jobs.
In 2003, the first restoration project was complete and the inn reopened. Ms. Rowland returned to the village for the ribbon cutting ceremony and reflected on the time she’d spent in Aurora and told those in attendance that those four years changed her life forever. “My heart was touched by the timeless remove of this place, far from the hustle and bustle of the world beyond. Something in my soul craved its quiet beauty, the golden dappled shade of the ancient elms arched over Main Street … Forty-five years ago, I came here seeking an education of the mind. I left with an education of the heart. And this gift to Wells, to Aurora, to all of you, and to future generations comes from my heart,” she expressed. Yes, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The years teach much which the days never know.”
Today, Aurora is a vibrant community which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. It's well worth a visit if you want to stroll back to simpler times when folks didn’t keep a thumb on their iPhone. The Inns of Aurora each offers something unique, but all feature old-world charm, rich architecture, fireplaces, period furnishings and luxurious comfort. Each inn is also graced throughout with original art from Ms. Rowland’s personal collection. One of my favorites in the E. B. Morgan House parlor is "Still Life in the Sun," (at right) by Robert Frame, known as the "Painters' Painter." Many rooms have lake views and all properties are within walking distance of restaurants, the market, boutique shops, and the college campus. Much more information about all three inns is available on The Inns of Aurora website.
The inns also offer a perfect winter retreat for guests who want to cozy up to a blazing fire in the hearth with a glass of sherry or ski on the area’s slopes. Also, November through April, the inns focus on cooking classes, wine dinners, and feature writers who offer readings and discussion sessions.
Ms. Rowland is still very vested in the town's success, according to Meryl. She said the Inns of Aurora will soon expand their offerings with the Abbot House, which Ms. Rowland owns and is in the process of renovating. The Queen Anne-style home, with 10 guest rooms. was built in 1902 by Morgan’s grandson and is known as the “water house.” Meryl stressed that Ms. Roland has always been committed to authenticity, giving meticulous attention to every detail during each restoration project." This latest endeavor will be “nothing short of beautiful,” she said.
What sets the Abbot House apart is that it offers “unparallelled access to the lake” and will feature a “casual yet refined exclusive lounge on the top floor of the boathouse" and offers docking space for guests, according to Meryl. She noted that the home features a conference room that will be ideal for executive retreats.
During our visit, we could see that Ms. Rowland has poured her heart and soul into Aurora, honoring the echo of her memories. Yet, we could tell that this little village has a soul of its own. We sensed it in the lad beaming with anticipation as he walked by with a fishing pole, sniffed it in a trip down memory lane at the old hardware store, heard it in the friendly greetings along the street, and felt it in Inns of Aurora which remarkably fuse the past and present. We raise a toast to Pleasant T. Rowland. Our hearts, too, have been touched by the town. And our stay at the E.B Morgan House was as good as it gets when it comes to a “good life” destination.
Click HERE to find the MacKensie-Childs website.
For more information on the Finger Lakes region and other area businesses, attractions, wineries and accommodations, please check out the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance website HERE.