Inns of Aurora

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Discover the five wonderful hotels that constitute the Inns of Aurora: the Inn of Aurora, the E.B. Morgan House, the Rowland House, Wallcourt Hall, and the Zabriskie House.

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The Inns of Aurora, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2020, dates back to 1833.

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Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Inns of Aurora form the nucleus to one of New York’s most historic villages. Composed of several historic buildings spread throughout the village of Aurora, the inns all provide for a luxurious getaway in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region. Their story starts in 1833, when business magnate Edwin Barber Morgan founded the “Aurora House” near the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Main Street. Morgan was a prominent local businessman, who had started his career managing a general store alongside his father in downtown Aurora. Seeking to expand his the family’s portfolio, he subsequently began developing the Aurora House and an office building next door. Within a matter of years, the Aurora House became immensely popular among both stagecoach passengers who passed through the area, as well as sailors traveling on the boats that moored in Aurora’s bustling harbor. The businesses made Morgan an incredibly wealthy man. He subsequently reinvested a significant portion of that capital into several other ventures, including some shipping operations that made frequent use of the Erie Canal. A few of his projects were far-reaching, too, as he was an early partner in the prestigious New York Times newspaper. He had even played a role in founding American Express with his friend—and future neighbor—Henry Wells. The two men maintained their friendship for some time, with Morgan serving on the board of directors for Well’s bank, Wells Fargo & Company.

While Morgan’s affluence reached new heights by the mid-19th century, the Aurora House continued to be one of the most popular destinations in the Finger Lakes region. It soon became known for its uninterrupted views of Lake Cayuga and the elegance of its hospitality. Visitors of all kinds traveled to the Aurora House directly from the Cayuga—Seneca Canal, as well as the Cayuga Lake Railroad when it finally arrived in the 1850s. By this point, Edwin B. Morgan had become one of the most influential citizens in Aurora, serving some three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. To celebrate his great successes, Morgan constructed a brilliant manor for himself a few blocks away from the inn that soon came to be known as the “E.B. Morgan House.” Designed by architect Joseph C. Wells, it cost Morgan a staggering sum of $50,000 to develop. Nonetheless, it featured some of the finest Italianate-style architecture in the entire region when it debuted in 1858. Morgan and his family would continue to live inside the manor for the remainder of the century, with his daughter, Louise, inheriting it upon his death in 1881. Around the same time, the Aurora House was sold to Coral W. Smith, who would operate the business as its own separate entity for the next several years. But when an accident destroyed much of the neighboring Wells College in 1888, Smith allowed many of its students to temporarily live at the Aurora House. As such, the students inspired Smith to rename the building as the “Way-side Inn.”

The Way-side Inn kept housing the students of Wells College for the next few decades, functioning as a popular dormitory. Eventually, in 1943, its owners formally bequeathed the inn to Wells College for permanent use as a female residency hall. It was later joined by Wallcourt Hall, a three-story brick structure that formerly served as a companion to a school called the “Miss Goldsmith’s School for Girls.” The Way-side Inn was operated simply as “The Inn” until 1948, when the college rechristened it as the “Aurora Inn.” When enrollment spiked dramatically in the mid-20th century, the two structures entered their peaks as residency halls for Well College. But registration began to decline in the 1970s, forcing both the Aurora Inn and Wallcourt Hall to operate with low occupancy numbers. As such, each building began to exact an increasingly difficult financial burden upon the college. Wallcourt Hall even sat completely dormant for a time! Yet, The Aurora Inn was allowed to continue running, although it intermittently closed on several occasions. In 2013, Pleasant Rowland—the founder of the “American Girl” doll brand—reached a deal to acquire several historic structures owned by the college in downtown Aurora. Among the buildings that she obtained were the Aurora Inn and the E.B. Morgan House, which the school had acquired some years before. A graduate of Wells College, Rowland had already invested millions into restoring countless historic structures throughout Aurora, including the E.B. Morgan House. As such, she relaunched the Aurora Inn and the E.B. Morgan House as the central attractions to the revitalized Inns of Aurora. Wallcourt Hall then joined the two structures in 2016.

Around the same time the Way-side Inn started serving students of Wells College, Louise Zabriskie and her husband, Nicholas, continued to live in the E.B. Morgan Estate. They stayed there for the rest of their lives, leaving the massive structure to their younger son, Robert, in the early 1900s. Robert and his older brother, Alonzo, had grown up in Aurora, but left to travel abroad upon reaching adulthood. Their mother eventually lured the two back home by constructing magnificent estates of their own within the town’s limits. Alonzo’s residency was the first to be completed, occupying a tranquil lakeside lot next to the E.B. Morgan Estate in 1903. It was simply stunning, displaying a beautiful array of Queen Anne-style architecture. Robert’s home was then finished two years later. Called the “Zabriskie House,” it differed from his brother’s in that it featured Colonial Revival-style design aesthetics. Yet, Alonzo’s family only lived in the building for ten years, eventually donating it to Wells College in 1913. It then went on to serve as the home for the college’s president, Kerr Duncan Macmillian, for quite some time. Eventually during the early 2000s, the structure started serving as the headquarters for the Aurora Foundation as it helped coordinate the renovations to the Aurora Inn. It underwent its own restoration in 2013, thanks in large part to Miss Rowland. She also purchased the building outright, and renamed it as the “Rowland House” a year later. The newly christened Rowland House then joined the Inns of Aurora. The Zabriskie House followed suit several years later in 2020, becoming the fifth location within the Inns of Aurora’s stunning collection of guest accommodations. Now a member of Historic Hotels of America, this outstanding historic destination is unrivaled in its amazing history and world-class service. For more information on the unique history of the Inns of Aurora, please review the timeline above.

  • About the Location +

    Located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, the Inns of Aurora form the nucleus to the village of Aurora’s historic downtown center. Aurora itself is among the communities that reside along the southern shoreline of Lake Cayuga, the longest of the state’s five famed Finger Lakes. It is also nestled within the Aurora Village—Wells College Historic District, which the U.S. Department of the Interior listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The history of Aurora is quite extensive, having been founded over four centuries ago in the late 19th century. Yet, the Cayuga people of the Iroquois Confederacy inhabited the land for many years prior, occupying a settlement at the site of the present town called “Chonodote” (or “Peachtown”). The Cayuga were later driven off the lake after General John Sullivan directed an expedition to rid the area of loyalist British colonists and the allies in 1779. (In 2005, several citizens attempted to reimburse the Cayuga by purchasing land within the town for the tribe to occupy for the first time in over 200 years.) Euro-American migration to the region increased tenfold in the aftermath of the American Revolution, as it had been on the periphery of New York’s then recognized borders. Much of the land allotted at the time was to Revolutionary War veterans, as recompense for their sacrifices during the conflict. A small gathering of ex-soldiers congregated at Lot 34 within the Central New York Military Tract, many of whom originated from nearby Pennsylvania and New England. The veterans and their families had specifically selected the area, for it possessed a deep port. In 1789, they founded a small village called “Scipio,” which was subsequently changed to “Aurora” some four years later.

    The village’s port soon became integral for commercial traffic making its way through the region, especially after engineers connected the Lake Cayuga with the Erie Canal via the Cayuga—Seneca Canal. Aurora quickly morphed into an important market town, with its population swelling in just a matter of decades. All sorts of people sought refuge in Aurora, such as escaped slaves from the South and Irish craftsmen from New York City. The village had grown in such importance that it became the first county seat for Cayuga County. Among the first historic structures to appear in Aurora was the county’s first school, which was known as the “Cayuga Academy.” It was then joined by other buildings, like the Masonic Scipio Lodge. But most of the brilliant historic landmarks that define downtown Aurora today did no emerge until the mid-19th century, when travel along the Cayuga-Seneca Canal had reached its zenith. Of the structures to appear at the time were The Bank, the Aurora House (the predecessor to Aurora Inn) and the Morgan Office Building. A few fantastic private homes also debuted, too, including the celebrated Taylor House, where countless local celebrations were held by the townspeople. Aurora gradually lost its original economic luster as by the end of the century, though, as the railroads supplanted the local canals in efficiency. Nevertheless, the village had come to attract many vacationers from across New York and reemerged as an attractive tourist destination in the 20th century. Today, Aurora has maintained that illustrious status, all while preserving its grand historical charm.

    Perhaps the greatest cultural icon in the village is Wells College, which is currently the largest employer in contemporary Aurora. It was founded by Henry Wells, an incredibly wealthy business tycoon responsible for creating both American Express and Wells Fargo. Wells had first moved to Aurora with his family from his native New York City in 1850. When his first home burnt down a year later, he purchased some 38 acres of land on the farm of John Morgan to the south of Aurora. He subsequently hired the renowned architect Calvin N. Otis to design a new mansion for his family upon the homestead. Naming the estate “Glen Park,” it took nearly two years to complete. Wells would later designate the most of the estate to serve as the campus for Wells College in 1868, although his mansion would remain under private ownership until the dawn of the 20th century. It exclusively focused on teaching young women, providing a wealth of dormitory housing and educational facilities to encourage their growth into adults. Wells College slowly grew in size, too, adding several new buildings at the height of the Gilded Age, such as the Main Building and Zabriskie Hall (which is now a part of the Inns of Aurora). The school would educate some of the most illustrious Americans in the country, including Frances Folsom, who would become First Lady of the United States in the 1890s. It continued to solely educate women until the school’s governing body decided to make it co-educational in 2004. The campus of Wells College still contains a much of its original architecture and is a contributing component to the Aurora Village—Wells College Historic District.


  • About the Architecture +

    While a wealth of historic, 19th-century architectural styles proliferate throughout Aurora today, the form that can best describe the structures that constitute the Inns of Aurora is Italianate. One of the first examples of Renaissance Revival—style architecture, Italianate design principles are some of the most historic ever used in the United States. Despite its popularity in the United States, it was originally conceived by a British architect named John Nash at the beginning of the 1800s. Inspired by the architectural motifs of 16th-century Italy, he constructed a brilliant Mediterranean-themed estate called “Cronkhill.” Nash borrowed heavily from both Palladianism and Neoclassicism to design the building, both of which were derivatives of the Italian Renaissance art forms. Soon enough, many other architects began copying Nash’s style, using it to construct similar manors across the English countryside. The person responsible for popularizing the aesthetic the most was Sir Charles Barry, who had his own offshoot called “Barryesque.” By the middle of the century, this Italian Renaissance Revival-style architecture had spread to other places within the British Empire, as well as mainland Europe. It had even crossed the Atlantic in the 1830s, where it dominated the American architectural landscape for the next 50 years. Architect Alexander Jackson Davis promoted the style, using it to design such iconic structures like Blandwood and Winyah Park across New York. Although he was more widely known for his use of another Revival style—Neo Gothic—his work with Italianate helped cement it within the United States.

    Renaissance Revival architecture writ large, is a group of architecture revival styles that date back to the 19th century. Neither Grecian nor Gothic in their appearance, Renaissance Revival-style architecture drew inspiration from a wide range of structural motifs found throughout Early Modern Western Europe. Architects in France and Italy were the first to embrace the artistic movement, who saw the architectural forms of the European Renaissance as an opportunity to reinvigorate a sense of civic pride throughout their communities. Those intellectuals incorporated the colonnades and low-pitched roofs of Renaissance-era buildings, with the characteristics of Mannerist and Baroque-themed architecture. Perhaps the greatest structural component to a Renaissance Revival-style building involved the installation of a grand staircase in a vein similar to those located at the Château de Blois and the Château de Chambord. This particular feature served as a central focal point for the design, often directing guests to a magnificent lobby or exterior courtyard. Yet, the nebulous nature of Renaissance Revival architecture meant that its appearance varied widely across Europe. As such, historians today often find it difficult to provide a specific definition for the architectural movement. Nevertheless, the various iterations that constitute Renaissance Revival architecture are among the most prevalent in the world, forming the architectural backbone to the appearance of most modern western cities today.

    Yet, a few of the structures affiliated with the Inns of Aurora also display a magnificent blend of Queen Anne-style architecture. A successor to Eastlake architecture, Queen Anne became a widely popular architectural style at the height of the Gilded Age. Named in honor of 18th-century British monarch, Queen Anne, the architectural form started in England before migrating to the United States. Yet, its name is misleading, as it actually borrowed its design principles from buildings constructed during the Renaissance. While the appearance of Queen Anne-style buildings may differ considerably, they are all united by several common features. For instance, they are typically asymmetrical in nature, and are built with some combination of stone, brick, and wood. Those buildings also feature a large wrap-around porch, as well as a couple polygonal towers. Those towers may also be accompanied by turrets along the corners of a building’s exterior façade. Queen Anne structures also have pitched, gabled roofs made with irregular shapes and patterns. Intricate wood carvings are a common sight throughout their layout, too, and are often designed in such a way to resemble different objects like an illusion. Clapboard paneling and half-timbering are a few other forms of woodworking that are regularly found somewhere within a Queen Anne-style structure.

    The Rowland House is a bit of an outlier for it showcases a more standard variation of Colonial Revival-style architecture. Colonial Revival architecture today is perhaps the most widely used building form in the entire United States. It reached its zenith at the height of the Gilded Age, where countless Americans turned to the aesthetic to celebrate what they feared was America’s disappearing past. The movement came about in the aftermath of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, in which people from across the country traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the American Revolution. Many of the exhibitors chose to display cultural representations of 18th-century America, encouraging millions of people across the country to preserve the nation’s history. Architects were among those inspired, who looked to revitalize the design principles of colonial English and Dutch homes. This gradually gave way to a larger embrace of Georgian and Federal-style architecture, which focused exclusively on the country’s formative years. As such, structures built in the style of Colonial Revival architecture featured such components as pilasters, brickwork, and modest, double-hung windows. Symmetrical designs defined Colonial Revival-style façades, anchored by a central, pedimented front door and simplistic portico. Gable roofs typically topped the buildings, although hipped and gambrel forms were used, as well. This building form remained immensely popular for years until largely petering out in late-20th century. Nevertheless, architects today still rely upon Colonial Revival architecture, using the form to construct all kinds of residential buildings and commercial complexes.


  • Famous Historic Events +

    American Girl Dolls (1986): Inns of Aurora founder and Wells College alum Pleasant Rowland initially rose to fame for creating the celebrated American Doll brand in 1986. A former teacher and writer, Rowland originally conceived of the idea to create the toy company while on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. During her journey, she realized that the toy market was devoid of any alternatives for younger-aged dolls. Rowland specifically endeavored to make her figurine educational in nature, hoping to teach children about the various aspects of American history. As such, the doll itself would imitate a young girl from a specific period of the nation’s past. Rowland also created a series of books that acted as an accessory, providing historical background for all the dolls within the collection. Rowland quickly established the “Pleasant Company” in Middleton, Wisconsin, which started manufacturing three 18-inch models: Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly. “Kirsten” resembled a girl whose family were pioneers living in Minnesota during the 1850s, while “Samantha” imitated an orphan from New York City around the turn of the 20th century. “Molly” dated from World War II and had a father who was serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Rowland then began selling the new toy line inside her own novelty store, “American Girl Place,” in downtown Chicago. The dolls became an overnight sensation, giving birth to a worldwide chain of several smaller brands. Among the most notable additions were a line of dolls called the “American Girl of Today,” which showcased different aspects of contemporary life. Other series run by the company included “Bitty Baby,” “Hopscotch Hill School,” and “Girl of the Year.” The historical line remains popular, as well, with 11 figurines currently within the collection. Two of the earliest dolls, Kirsten and Molly, are currently retired and are considered a rare collector’s item by fans of the business today.


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