Now that fall is in full swing, why not take a weekend getaway upstate to the Finger Lakes wine country, where the fall foliage is in all its glory and the crisp air is perfect for cozying up next to a fire. The charming town of Aurora, located on a hill on the east side of Cayuga Lake is just a five-hour drive from the city, and here you’ll find the Inns of Aurora, a collection of four very different historic properties with rooms to rent and a lot of history to share.
Aurora developed into a small manufacturing hub in the 19th century and served as a stopping point along the Cayuga-Seneca Canal en route to the Erie Canal. Along with commercial growth, stately residences began to sprout up in different classical styles–Italianate, Greek Revival and Tudor, to name a few. In 1868, Henry Wells, the father of American Express and Wells Fargo, founded Wells College for the education of women, turning the little village into a quaint college town as it remains today. Many of the houses and original buildings on the college campus were added to the National Register of Historic Places’ 50-building Aurora Village–Wells College Historic District in 1980.
In recent years, Pleasant Rowland, an alumna of Wells College (who also founded the American Girl brand), bought several buildings from the institution and transformed them into the Inns of Aurora.
An etching of the original Aurora Inn
First up is the Federal-style Aurora Inn, “a refined country inn, featuring graceful white-columned balconies and lakeside dining.” It was built in 1833 by Edwin B. Morgan, an Aurora native, original investor in the New York Times, congressman, and first president of Wells Fargo & Company (he was clearly chummy with Henry Wells). During Aurora’s height as a canal city, travelers often stayed overnight at the inn, as Morgan had by that time established a lucrative business buying and shipping agricultural products as well as boat-building. In fact, Morgan met Henry Wells on the commercial dock that once stood behind the inn. The two men were also friends and business partners with Ezra Cornell, a resident of nearby Ithaca who was the largest stockholder of the Western Union Telegraph Company and founder of Cornell University.
The Aurora Inn today
In the early 1940s, the inn was purchased by William D. Eagles, who hired his uncle, former sea captain John Eagles to mange the property. After Wells College opened in 1868, it became a popular hangout spot for students, and more came from Cornell and other nearby institutions. In 1888 a fire tore through Wells College’s main building, and many students took up temporary residency at the inn, renaming it the Wayside Inn. But it wasn’t until 1943 that the building was officially deeded to Wells College. The 1970s brought financial struggles, despite additions, renovations, and new managers, and the college closed it several times over the years, most recently in 2000.
The Aurora Inn’s veranda
The Aurora Inn’s parlor
The Inns of Aurora purchase and subsequent restorations were overseen and supported by the Aurora Foundation, a partnership between Wells College and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. The Aurora Inn reopened in 2003 with ten guest rooms, a new lakeside restaurant, and a banquet room for special occasions. A stone terrace and landscaped lawns and gardens were added to link the building to the lake shore. The public rooms are decorated with antiques as well as contemporary and historic art, including original portraits of William and John Eagles.
The E.B. Morgan house when it was renamed the French House
Next we travel to Edwin B. Morgan’s personal mansion, the E.B. Morgan House, which he shared with his wife Charlotte Wood Morgan and their children and passed down to succeeding generations of the Morgan-Zabriskie family. It was built in 1858 in the Italianate style by prominent New York architect Joseph C. Wells (no relation to Henry), costing a total of $50,000, a staggering sum at the time. In the 1870s, Morgan and Ezra Cornell invested in the Cayuga Lake Railroad Company, which ran along the lake shore through Aurora. Morgan liked that his waterfront home was adjacent to the train line as it gave him the opportunity to keep an eye on his investment. Supposedly, he even checked from his yard to make sure the trains were running on time.
During his later years, Morgan devoted his work to local philanthropy, supporting organizations in education, culture, and human welfare; he gave very generously to Wells College. Every Fourth of July, he invited the people of Aurora to his home for a fireworks display on the lawn. When he passed away in 1881, his daughter Louise and her husband Nicholas Lansing Zabriskie took over the mansion. It remained in their family until 1961 when John L. and Lesley Zabriskie gifted the property to Wells College. It then served as a residence hall for students studying French who were not allowed to speak English while in the home, garnering it the title the French House. The building was renovated in 1979 and then operated as a college guest house for 25 years.
The E.B. Morgan House today
The E.B. Morgan House reopened in 2003 after a multi-million dollar renovation to transform it into a bed and breakfast while maintaining its historic details. The house offers seven guest rooms, living areas, and a shaded porch that overlooks Cayuga Lake. Additionally, the entire house can be rented for special events such as weddings. According to Find Everything Historic who visited the Inns of Aurora, “Not only have the original architectural details been preserved and highlighted throughout, but the interior design is a striking mix of bold wall colors, modern art, and traditional furniture. Everywhere you looked the subtle accents were executed perfectly. On the exterior, you could see the individual chisel marks where each stone of the façade had been shaped by the hands of a master mason.”
The Rowland House today
The Rowland House is a Queen Anne mansion built by Alonzo Morgan Zabriskie in 1902, a descendant of Edwin Morgan. The house was renamed in honor of Pleasant Rowland, and reopened in 2014 as the most recent addition to the Inns of Aurora. Located on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the house now has extensive docks to accommodate guests arriving by boat. Also added were a two-story boathouse, fire pit, and a small Grecian temple from the 19th century that will be used for wedding ceremonies.
Four of the Rowland House’s ten guest rooms have been decorated colorfully, cozily, and uniquely by MacKenzie-Childs, as the company is headquartered in Aurora–and Pleasant Rowland bought it in 2001 before selling to Twin Lakes Capital in 2008.
The final stop is Wallcourt Hall, which just opened this pay May and was named for the brick-walled vineyard that originally occupied its site. It was built in 1909 as a dorm for Miss Goldsmith’s School for Girls, a prep-school run by fellow Wells College alum Anna Goldsmith, but after she passed away in 1921, her stepson gifted the building back to the College, where it continued to serve as dorm until 1974, and then did a brief stint as a studio for MacKenzie-Childs. After sitting vacant for decades and becoming overrun with weeds, Rowland acquired the property in 2014, and turned it into a boutique, 17-room hotel that’s outfitted with more than 70 pieces of original art, much of which comes from Rowland’s personal collection.
Aerial view of Aurora via Village of Aurora
All of the properties are within the Aurora Village–Wells College Historic District, as well as listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this led to some controversy over Pleasant Rowland’s renovation work. In fact, both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation League of New York State joined a suite that claimed the Aurora Foundation was ignoring state laws that required a thorough review of projects within a district. Adding fuel to the fire, Rowland doesn’t actually live in Aurora, but rather in Wisconsin. The courts ruled in favor of the Foundation, though, and in 2013 Rowland took ownership of the properties from Wells College and purchased several other sites, making her the majority owner of the town’s entire business district.
Controversy aside, Aurora is a beautiful place to visit and full of interesting history. Learn more about the Inns of Aurora here.
All images via Inns of Aurora unless otherwise noted
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