It’s as though the entire place was deserted in 1908 and only the ghosts were left to take care of the plants. My husband and I visited the Sonnenberg gardens at Canandaigua, NY yesterday. The experience was both charming and disturbing. Don’t get me wrong—I love Victorian botanical gardens, in all their artificiality and forced exoticism. That’s my thing. And I adore it.
But Sonnenberg is a restoration in progress. As of now, that progress has not extended to much of the glasshouse area and it is only beginning to become evident in the exterior gardens. The water courses are silent now (soon to be reinvigorated), but the Japanese garden (above) is gorgeous and extensive. A few of the formal areas near the mansion—the summer house of the Thompson family, who gave us this place—are also very nearly as they would have been back in the day. Philanthropist Mary Thompson was assisted by Ernest Bowditch and John Handrahan in designing all this. There are 11 garden areas. But in many, many ways, this place is a mess. And that’s what I love about it.
Walking through the greenhouses, I was struck by the contrasting elements: thriving tropicals, succulents, and orchids; original yellowing labels from decades ago; remnants of discarded statuary; and, most disturbingly, a prevalent aroma of decay. I almost expected to find Miss Havisham lurking behind a palm.
If you live around here, do visit. Otherwise, support your local botanical gardens. They clearly need it.