The Explorographer
Sonnenberg Gardens

Local Fare ~ Sonnenberg Gardens ~ Canandaigua, NY

As a boy, I grew up having two parents, my mom, and my grandmother.  We didn’t have a lot of money but my gram and mom did what they could each year during the summer to make it special.    You have probably seen some of my other stories about these summer travels to Pleasant Valley Winery, and the Corning Museum of Glass.  Check the links out at the bottom of this article if you have not.  Anyway, we would take little trips to the lake and stay with family or we would all get together in my uncles big Lincoln Continental (he was a plumbing store owner and therefore considered the rich guy in the family) and travel to various locations around New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.  I remember many times sitting in the back of that car listening to Jazz and Big Band music on his deluxe 8 track player, nodding off to Duke Ellington and Momma Cass.  My uncle Joe was awesome.  He was a crazy gentleman that I looked up to as a kid, like the dad I never had.  His family raised Arabian horses and he himself was a harness jockey back in the day.  Each summer we would plan a family trip to the Canandaigua Horse Racing Track and it was one of my fondest memories as kid.  We would go to the track see the horses, my mom would let me bet $2 here and there, then we would all head into town to have dinner at a local restaurant.  I couldn’t tell you what we ate, but I do remember the cheese cake being awesome.  My how life and times have changed.  One of the times we went I remember it raining the week before and the getting there and the track being so muddy the horses couldn’t run.  Back in those days there was no checking the internet, or automated calls.  We just thought it was an adventure and headed off.  My uncle knew there was more than that to do in the area, so he took us over to a place called Sonnenberg Gardens.  I remember being quite disappointed.  Flowers, lots of flowers, booooooring.  I thought, yeah, this is a grandma and mom thing.  They are going talk all day about this flower and that flower, they both loved their gardens.  And as I try to look back, to be honest, I don’t remember much about the place.  I think I was 10 or 11 years old at the time. I was interested in bikes, and cowboys, you know boy stuff.  But, my uncle being the gentleman he was and having 3 ladies in the car knew there was a place that would surely make them all happy…I was the least of his concern on that day.

Flash forward, 40 (yes 40) years.  My gram, mom, uncle, aunt, have all been passed now for years, and I miss them.  They never got the chance to see me become anything.  The Canandaigua Horse Racing Track is now called Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack where the “Racetrack” has now been reduced to a tiny sub-heading on the new “Casino” billing.  I have been there, and I found the charm has been polished clean and converted into senior citizen social security swiping machine of digital perfection like so much of the world has become.  I am an old soul of sorts. I like what I like and for no other reason other than I like it.  Life has changed and I have finally grown up well, as much as I am going to.  Times and circumstances today are naturally different.  I get to travel more now, pretty much as much as I want to as it is what I do for a living.  In my longing to move and to get out and see, many times the local scene gets overlooked.  This past year I put down 50,000 miles in travel, which for a local kid who still lives in the same area he grew up is quite a lot.  I have begun to revisit many of the locations that I experienced as a kid to relive and record. I am finding that they are extremely enjoyable with these new “older” eyes and mind.

During a 2015 4 day photowalk/workshop I was hosting here in New York, one of the attendees and now good friend of mine (and amazing photographer) Lynn Wiezycki traveled all the way from Florida to hang out with the group.  Lynn is part of The Arcanum where I teach.  She mentioned staying a couple of extra days and wondered if I had any place I would like to shoot.  Must be my uncle was channeling me or something and Sonnenberg Gardens, a place I hadn’t visited in 40 years came to mind.  I knew Lynn loved flowers and while it was the wrong time of year for it, I knew she would appreciate the gardens themselves.  Honesty time: I was really taking a shot in the dark here because I seriously did not remember much about the place from when I was a kid.  Those that spend time with me though will tell you, in this way, I am quite the lucky charm. And while the weather was overcast and drizzly, it was perfect!

There were maybe 3 people there while we were, and for landscape photographers, having the place to yourself is a treat!

A brief history via Wikipedia:

The property was once the summer home of Frederick Ferris Thompson, a prominent banker in New York City, and his wife Mary Clark Thompson, whose father, Myron Holley Clark, was Governor of New York State in 1855. The Clark family was from Canandaigua, NY. Mr. & Mrs. Thompson’s main home was in NYC in a large townhouse on Madison Avenue. The Thompsons purchased the Sonnenberg property in 1863, keeping the name, Sonnenberg (which means “sunny hill” in German). In 1887, they replaced the original farmhouse with a forty-room Queen Anne style mansion. The property also had a 100-acre farm to the east. Sonnenberg’s gardens were designed and built between 1902–1919, and originally consisted of nine gardens in a variety of styles.

The Thompson’s had no children. The nephew who inherited the estate after Mary Clark Thompson’s death in 1923 sold the property to the Federal Government in 1931. They then built a veteran’s hospital (today the Canandaigua VA Medical Center) on the adjacent farmland.[1] The Government used the mansion to house doctor’s families and some nurses. In 1972, by an act of Congress called the Sonnenberg Bill, the mansion and its grounds were transferred from the Federal Government to a local non-profit organization formed to restore and reopen the property.[1] It was opened to the public in 1973. All nine gardens have been restored and visitors can tour the mansion. In 2005, the New York State Department of Parks bought the estate. It is still operated by the non-profit.

Lynn, Dani, and I would begin our journey at the very last place I wanted to visit 40 years ago, the greenhouses.  Unfortunately the gardens were not in bloom, we were too late for that, but the greenhouses are always raising new plants and flowers for the grounds.

There may have been little interest all those many years ago, but I would like to think that I have learned a little something since then. I may not be a master gardener, but I do understand the appreciation. And the greenhouses here harbor many a mysterious plant.  Orchids, ferns, and palms, oh my!

Next stop, (where we had to dodge the other 3 visitors) the Japanese Gardens, which was also my favorite area of the park.

As I mentioned, we were there in the “off” season but, the Japanese garden was absolutely amazing. I could have stayed there all day!

As luck would have it though, the rain started to sprinkle a bit so we headed toward the mansion for a look-see.  Along the way we took in a couple of the many fountains and sculptures found on the grounds.

We finally make it to the mansion and dry off a bit before heading inside.

This place reminds me of stately Wayne Manor in Gotham!  It’s absolutely engaging and amazing!  Immediately on entry we are met by this grand room.

There was a small staff on hand and they were awesome and informative.  The grounds and home are truly one of New York’s hidden treasures.

Around every corner is hidden the secrets of this families once grand life, preserved in perfect detail.  Our time this day was limited so there was not nearly enough time to take it all in.  In fact, I am planning a spring photowalk there when the flowers are in bloom, keep watch on this site and my facebook page for details when announced.

Daylight fading and Lynn still having quite a drive to her hotel, we decided to have lunch at the wonderful High Noon Cafe there on the grounds. Well known for their delicious crepes and specialty beverages!  Travel has changed me, opened my eyes and made me see things in a completely different light.  It has made me cherish the small things and seek out the big things.  Revisiting these childhood memories helps me compound on that and grow as an artist, and a human being.

If you are in the Finger Lakes area, make sure to visit Sonnenberg Gardens!  While this property is in good hands, volunteers and donations are always need for improvements and upkeep.  For more details on special events, weddings, moonlight strolls, ,when the flowers are in bloom, and how to donate money and/or time, visit their website @

I took a bunch more photos this day as well, you can see and purchase them @ My Portfolio For every purchase of a Sonnenberg print from my gallery in 2016, over $100 I will donate 10% to the Gardens. More print options than what you see in my portfolio are available as well, please contact me regarding anything you don’t see and are interested in!

Gear used on this shoot:

Sony a7r Mirrorless Camera ~ Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS  Lens ~ Minolta Celtic 50mm 1.7 Lens


Explore. Photograph. Write. Repeat.

A multi-award winning travel photographer and mentor. Most known for his "abandonscape" images. Creator and curator of and

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