Victorian magnificence—and decay



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.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. That was interesting. The photos reminded me of the newer film of Great Expectations and the great, decaying house which was a central character. I don’t know where it was filmed, but it was so familiar.~~Dee

  2. Sonnenberg holds a special place for me…I remember going there in the early 70s (’71?) as a little boy with my grandmother and mother. They had just started getting it going again and had just reopened it to the public. I have vague memories of it but over the years we would usually go back once or twice a summer. I am going to the Art Show today!

  3. Your comments saddened me as Sonnenberg Gardens was completely restored about 30-40 years ago under the leadership of Donna Desyne and a group of dedicated regional gardeners. Sorry to hear that it has been neglected. A beautiful estate.

    Hopefully the magnificent
    weeping beech tree is still in place on the front lawn of the house near the driveway.

  4. Well, I think they’re working on it. It’s not abandoned, just needs a lot of constant upkeep. There is restoration work going on.

  5. In 2003, the then-executive director of Sonnenberg embezzled over a half-million dollars. Facing foreclosure, the board negotiated a buy-out by NY state in 2006. After the sale Sen. Chuck Schumer obtained a $250K grant, and the local community matched that by raising another $250K. A lot of effort has gone into keeping Sonnenberg open.

    I first visited about 20 years ago, but was dismayed by a visit in 2004. At the time, I didn’t know about the financial problems, and thought perhaps that the intervening years (including 10 as an avid gardener) had just made me more critical. However, a look back at photographs from the first visit revealed the decline. Looking forward to a better visit in the near future.

  6. I have lived in Canandaigua since 1994 and became interested in the Sonnenberg gardens in the last few years, esp. following the embezzlement issues that happened on top of financial instability. The local bank president was key to hold onto the property while advocating and waiting for the state to buy it out to make it a historic state park. I observed features that have fallen down or were taken down/shored up due to decay within the last 10 years. Sonnenberg still relies on volunteers and donations for everything, but the state appropriates some money so that projects have been prioritized and several have already been completed. I have been a volunteer now for 3 years and just started volunteering September 2008 in the blue and white garden (the first picture above showing the summer building with ‘Diana robing’ statue in it). The mansion veranda is supposed to be reappointed with major construction underneath but has now been put off due to the economic crisis. This left the blue and white garden weedy and in disrepair so I “adopted” this garden. The marble tile on the walkways were reappointed last year. I am researching how the original beds were designed in this small garden and will be working toward recreating this garden to the pictures I found from the early 1900’s. I have to be practical because there won’t be enough money to afford all the plants Mark Clark Thompson had at that time just in this little garden, but I’ll keep building it up gradually. Keep visiting to see what else is restored and hopefully it won’t lose that desirable “decayed” look.

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