The Aurora Renaissance

The restored, 171-year-old Aurora Inn welcomes travelers once again.

During the mid 19th century, Aurora was a bustling village nestled along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. It had become a major stop on the Erie Canal for boats carrying agricultural products from area farmers to New York City and a handsome new inn opened on Main Street in 1833 to accommodate travelers borne by barge, rail and coach. So prosperous was the village that Henry Wells, of Wells Fargo stagecoach fame, founded Wells College there in 1868.

Fast forward 130 years to October 2000. Dilapidated and losing money, the Aurora Inn closed its doors for business and stood as an ominous symbol that the tiny village was failing. Like many other upstate New York communities, Aurora had fallen into a spiral of economic decline that threatened its very future.

Today, the Aurora Inn is open again after a multimillion dollar restoration aimed at making it one of the top lodging and dining spots in the Finger Lakes. There’s a sparkling new Village Market next door, the Fargo Bar & Grill across the street has had a major facelift, a hip new “pizzeria with pizzazz” has opened in a renovated 1940s garage, and downtown is buzzing with the unmistakable feeling that the village is on the brink of a real renaissance.

What made possible this rapid “reversal of fortunes” was the formation of the Aurora Foundation, a partnership between Wells College, the small, women’s liberal arts college in Aurora, and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. A 1962 graduate of Wells College, Pleasant Rowland created the American Girls Collection of dolls and books and has become a committed philanthropist since selling her Wisconsin-based Pleasant Company in 1998. Describing Aurora as a “treasure to protect,” Ms. Rowland calls the restoration work being done a “gift of the heart to Wells, to Aurora and to future generations.”

“We are very fortunate to have Pleasant Rowland as a benefactor,” said Wells College president Lisa Marsh Ryerson. “Her belief in Aurora’s value as a historic American village, her experience as an entrepreneur and her unwavering support of Wells is making all the difference to the college and the community.”

Armed with funding and management expertise from Rowland, the Aurora Foundation tackled several renovation projects at once. All involved commercial buildings that had been deeded to Wells College over the years and were in need of an infusion of capital in order to make significant repairs. Wells retains ownership of the properties and will benefit from any proceeds from businesses they house.

“Our goal is to help make Aurora a healthy, prosperous village once again so that Wells College will also flourish,” said Catharine B. Waller, executive director of the Aurora Foundation. “Aurora has so much going for it – a rich history, beautiful historic buildings, a gorgeous setting in the heart of the Finger Lakes and residents who care deeply about the future of the village. Our hope is that the Aurora Foundation will jump-start a new era of prosperity,” she said.

So far, the plan appears to be working. Arthur Bellinzoni, who has lived in Aurora since 1962 when he moved from New York City to become a professor at the college, recalled: “Aurora was a decaying village. There wasn’t much happening here and young people were anxious to leave as soon as possible. What we’re witnessing is an exciting rebirth of this small community. I’m thrilled with the turn of events. There’s new vitality here, including the prospect of good jobs for our young people, which simply didn’t exist before,” he said.

Randi Shaw Zabriskie, a Wells graduate who owns Jane Morgan’s Little House, a women’s clothing store in Aurora, concurs: “It was a sad day when the Aurora Inn closed. It was as if the heart of the village had died and there was a big, black hole left,” she said. “To have the inn open and humming again and for it to be such an exquisite place is a wonderful gift to our community.”

Inn Combines Old-World Charm With Modern Comforts

A handsome three-story brick building built in 1833 in the Federal style, the Aurora Inn was brought back during the renovation to its original footprint based on an etching from the 1840s. White-columned porches and balconies, some of which were removed decades ago, were replicated and now add charm to both the front and rear of the building. The original 1833 fireplaces were uncovered, woodwork and leading in old windows were restored or replicated and painstaking attention was paid to emphasize the inn’s historic features which had been obscured gradually over time.

When the inn reopened in June 2003, Aurora residents were struck by the way the inn retained its history, charm and intimacy, but had been updated to make it more comfortable and appealing for today’s guests. Eight fireplaces, rich woods, antiques, Oriental rugs and an extensive art collection offer visitors a warm welcome.

The inn now offers 10 luxurious guest rooms and suites, each individually decorated with designer fabrics and furnishings that place an emphasis on comfort. All have marble bathrooms, comfortable lounge chairs, writing tables wired for high-speed Internet access, flat-panel televisions and other amenities. Most rooms have balconies with rockers, benches or swings to sit and look out over the lake or village. Some have inviting fireplaces, small kitchens or deep whirlpool baths.

The restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week, combines comfortable banquettes, intimate booths and cherry tables for seating for 55 in the main dining room. A bank of windows and French doors open onto a porch and tree-shaded veranda with spectacular views of the lake and al fresco dining. Incorporating fresh regional products, the restaurant’s cuisine is described as “American comfort food at its best.” Daily specials include beef, lamb and pork roasts, as well as more adventurous cuisine to complement the regular offerings of pot roast, meat loaf and chicken pot pie. A more casual tavern menu will soon be offered for all-day dining.

The inn also has a beautiful new banquet room that is fast becoming a highly desirable location for weddings, meetings and other special events. Centerpiece of the room is a 1958 mural by artist Glenn Shaw depicting scenes of the village as it was in 1879. Originally hung in the front hall of the inn, the mural was restored and now encircles the spacious banquet room. French doors extend the space out to a stone cocktail terrace with sweeping views of the lake. The inn also offers lakeside lawn weddings under pristine white tents.

While the inn is the jewel in the crown of village revitalization, more renovations have been completed and new businesses opened, offering expanded options for residents, Wells students and visitors. Case in point is the new Village Market immediately adjacent to the inn. With an attractive mahogany storefront inspired by the design of a former market as it appeared in photos 100 years ago, the market provides local residents with their basic grocery needs, including fresh meats, produce, baked goods and carry-out meals, while serving guests of the inn and tourists who visit the region. Cooking demonstrations from chefs at the Aurora Inn are featured on Saturday.

Directly across the street from the inn, The Fargo Bar & Grill also reopened last spring following months of renovation. A local favorite for decades, the village tavern is housed in a Federal-style brick building completed the year after the Inn was built. A temporary entryway in place since the 1960s was replaced with a new full-length front porch based on a postcard picture of the building as it looked in 1900. Two original fireplaces were uncovered and restored during the renovation and now serve as focal points of the new dining room and bar.

With a new poolroom, hand-hewn ceiling beams, antique heart-of-pine floors and original turn-of-the-century posters announcing Fourth of July activities in the village, the tavern has a warm, informal atmosphere. The menu includes char-grilled hamburgers, sandwiches, soups, salads and beverage, with an expanded dinner menu.

A new addition to the village is Pizzaurora, a pizzeria that was ingeniously carved out of a concrete block building that served as a garage during World War II and as storage space in more recent years. In stark contrast to the Federal style of the other buildings, the pizzeria has a fun, bright and contemporary décor that appeals to students and families alike. Pizzaurora’s menu features homemade thin-crust pizza, calzones and submarine sandwiches. Patrons can choose to eat in, carry out or even take advantage of free local delivery.

Another Aurora institution that has found new life with the help of Pleasant Rowland is a former drugstore called Mack’s. The diminutive wooden building now houses a charming luncheonette and restored soda fountain named Dorie’s and has a new shady deck out back that overlooks the lake. It’s the kind of place where kids come to grab fistfuls of penny candy from big glass jars, where teenagers sip milkshakes made from local Purity ice cream and business meetings are conducted over hot bowls of homemade chili.

Soon to open in the center of the village is another renovated structure intended to house Posies, the village’s floral and gift shop. The tiny store will be surrounded by a garden with roses growing over a picket fence. It promises to be a delightful place to take in the view of village life or a sunset over the lake.

“There’s a new vibrancy in Aurora,” observed Ann Rollo, vice president of external relations at Wells College, who moved to the village four years ago with her family and has witnessed the transformation firsthand. “It’s becoming a crossroads…a quintessential mix of a destination that is also a comfortable place to live,” she noted, adding, “It’s also nice to be able to get what you need in your own backyard. My kids can jump on their bikes and pick up a dozen eggs at the market or meet their friends at Pizzaurora.”

MacKenzie-Childs Thrives     
As part of her vision to revitalize Aurora, Pleasant Rowland also bought MacKenzie-Childs, the world-renowned maker of hand-crafted tableware and furnishings, in June 2001 when there was the threat that it might close down or move from Aurora. The company is now undergoing a renaissance of its own, with new stores opening in Atlanta, Palm Beach and New York City, and plans in the works to make its home base in Aurora an even more attractive destination than it already is.

Set high on a bluff just outside the village on the picturesque grounds of a former 75-acre Victorian dairy farm, MacKenzie-Childs welcomes visitors to tour its manufacturing studio to see artisans at work, shop in the retail shop and see the gardens, greenhouse, Chicken Palace (home to ducks, chickens and guinea fowl) and Highland cattle grazing in the fields. The Restaurant MacKenzie-Childs, which is known for its extraordinary décor, fine cuisine and use of the company’s signature dinnerware and glassware, is currently undergoing renovation and is expected to reopen in Spring 2005.

The pièce de résistance at MacKenzie-Childs may well become the Farmhouse, which opened to the public for the first time this winter for daily tours and private functions. A meticulous, two-year restoration of the Victorian homestead showcases the full range of MacKenzie-Childs products in a home-like setting on all three floors. Everything from cocktail receptions to sit-down dinners can be booked in the three dining rooms or outside on the stone terrace overlooking the lake. In addition, a High Tea is being served every afternoon on the terrace from mid-May through Columbus Day.

All this restoration work and sprucing up of downtown – including new sidewalks, underground utility lines and more than a dozen new elm trees – has set a “good example” and inspired the community to “take better care of itself,” according to Ms. Zabriskie. “Houses are being painted, shutters are being mended and people are raking their lawns and planting flowers again,” she explained. “The whole village looks like it has taken a deep breath, dusted itself off and stood up with its shoulders back.”

There are also signs that other new businesses may soon be sprouting up in or near the village. A local contractor recently purchased a historic home in the village that once housed a thriving antiques business and is planning to renovate it and lease it as commercial space. Meanwhile, an old building just up in the hill in Sherwood is being restored as an antique shop. There’s even talk of a new restaurant and winery opening north of the village.

Existing businesses also draw people to the Finger Lakes community. Just south of the village, visitors can stop by the tiny Aurora Shoe Company and see 16th century shoes that “fit the feet” being made by hand. In the heart of downtown, Vintage Lighting offers a superb collection of vintage lamps and accessories. Only a mile up Sherwood Road, Cleaveland’s Antiques is jam-packed with treasures.

The Aurora Foundation is also far from finished with its work. Plans call for the French House and Abbott House – two stately homes on the lake – to be restored as guest houses. The original post office is also undergoing renovation and initial plans for other commercial properties owned by the college are on the drawing board.

“There’s no question Aurora will become a destination again,” said Rusty Hopkins, who has lived near the village since 1939 and remembers the time when busloads of people came for lunch at the inn to watch flocks of Canada geese herald the arrival of spring with their return to Cayuga Lake. “It’s a gorgeous setting, and it’s marvelous what has been done in the past few years,” she added.

“I look forward to seeing this village 10 years from now,” commented Ms. Zabriskie. “I believe visitors will be able to spend a quiet, peaceful day in Aurora working their way through a few exceptional places and handful of interesting shops. I think we’ll represent the best of historic, small upstate villages and we’ll be proud of our past and present and have hope for the future. When we leave our houses to our children, we will be leaving them a legacy in a wonderful place,” she said, adding, “Aurora just keeps getting better every day.”

Called the “village of constant dawn” by the Indians and later named for the Greek goddess of the dawn, Aurora is living up to its namesake. A new day is dawning in Aurora – for its residents, its business owners and for Wells College – and it is a bright day indeed.

by Dariel Curren
Dariel Curren has fond memories of visiting Aurora when she was growing up on a farm in nearby Skaneateles. She now makes her living as a writer in Roxbury, Connecticut. 

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