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It’s easy to describe Aurora, New York, a tiny town on Cayuga Lake, as “Rockwellian.” It’s home to the Village Market (which serves a scrumptious slice of coconut cake), the quaint local bank (really an old home made of quarried limestone), and the red brick inn on Main Street, where a fire is always roaring and an American flag is always waving. But Aurora also evokes the world of another, lesser-known (well, except to girls from the ’90s) cultural character: Samantha Parkington.
Along with her “Grandmary,” Samantha Parkington lived in the fictional town of Mount Bedford at the turn of the 20th century. Like Aurora, it’s a town defined by water in a bucolic part of New York. Both have historic, Victorian-era opera houses, and were home to prestigious prep schools for girls. And both seem frozen in the Edwardian era: one, as a result of fiction; the other, as a result of avid restoration. But the biggest thing they have in common? Pleasant Rowland.
In 1986, Pleasant Rowland created not just Samantha Parkington, but also Kirsten Larson, Molly McIntire, and the entire world known as American Girl. For any young girl growing up in that time, an American Girl Doll was the must-have toy. In 1998, Rowland sold the brand for $700 million to Mattel.
But well before Rowland built her empire of books, dolls, and their many miniature accessories, she graduated from Wells, a small liberal arts college in Aurora. “The four years I spent at Wells College, in the tiny village of Aurora, changed me forever,” Rowland tells Vogue in a rare interview, echoing a speech she made in 2003. “First, of course, in the obvious ways that college changes everyone. But in another, deeper way, my heart was touched by the timeless remove of this place, far from the hustle and bustle.”
She didn’t realize just how much the town had affected her until almost 25 years later when she returned to Aurora for the first time since graduation. She’d been busy—with her career as an educator, then a journalist, then a wildly successful businesswoman, all while raising a family with her husband in Wisconsin. But as soon as she glimpsed Wells’s red bell tower, she fell back in love. So when she noticed many of Aurora’s historic buildings had fallen into disrepair, she decided to fix them. All of them. And a lot of other stuff, too.
Partnering with Wells College in 2001, she created the Aurora Foundation, donating her time and wealth to restoring properties and businesses throughout the town. She renovated the local watering hole, The Fargo Bar & Grill. She built a market. She bought MacKenzie-Childs, the eccentric home decor company in town, reorganized it, and brought it from bankruptcy to profitability. She buried the power lines and redid the sidewalks. She brought in elm trees to line Main Street and then redid the stores on it as well.
The whole plan was met with some blowback: Rowland and the foundation faced a lawsuit, which was later dismissed. In 2007, The New York Times ran a story about Aurora with the headline, “Doll’s Village: Some See Restoration as Too Cutesy.” But the Foundation’s work continued, and now, over a decade and a half later, she’s restored more than 15 buildings in Aurora. But her most ambitious undertaking has yet to be completed.
Rowland has thrown her full weight behind the construction of five different boutique hotels in Aurora. Only one, the Aurora Inn, was a hotel to begin with. Two, E.B. Morgan House and Rowland House, are restored, centuries-old homes on the lake, and another, Wallcourt Hall, is a former dormitory of Miss Goldsmith’s School for Girls. The fifth, unofficially called Zabriskie House, is under construction, as is a wellness compound and spa, which will be housed on an old farm. Collectively, they are known as the “Inns of Aurora.”
At first, it seems a bit odd: five upscale lodging options in a minuscule town, all on the same street and less than 0.2 miles apart. The collective inns aren’t exactly a resort, as they don’t all share common space, and are dotted around Aurora. They all have distinct looks, too. Each inn boasts a unique architectural style, a reflection of both their owners and the period in which they were built. The Aurora Inn, founded in 1833, is done is the Federalist style, whereas the 1903 Rowland House is Queen Anne, and the 1858 E.B. Morgan House is Italianate.
Alex Schloop, the creative director of the Inns of Aurora, is the first to admit that explaining the concept behind the inns is difficult. Even he couldn’t do it when asked. “I haven’t been able to find a good answer to that question, but if you have one, let me know,” he says cheerfully.
Here’s his best shot: “I’m going to butcher the Italian because I’m bad at it, but there’s this concept called albergo diffuso. It’s essentially a scattered hotel, where they have these historic properties within a central district in a city. There’s one central check-in location, but your guest room might be in a villa over here, or an old townhouse over there. That’s how I think the Inns of Aurora works. We’re a hotel with several different properties, scattered among a real working Finger Lake village.”
They may not know what to call it, but they can christen it a success. The Inns of Aurora have quickly become upstate hot spots, getting callouts in Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, on this site, and even in international publications like The Telegraph. Visitors love the idyllic lakeside setting, especially in the summer, and its proximity to the country’s longest running wine trail. The intimate hospitality is another draw—each inn has its own innkeeper, who often surprises guests with freshly baked blueberry scones in the morning and cheese plates in the afternoon.
Rowland meticulously oversees the design for each hotel—including everything from the color scheme and decor style to nitty-gritty details like how many times to paint a door. She adorns the buildings with her own personal antiques and art collection. As a result, each inn reflects a part of Rowland’s identity, and forges its own unique and zany one that’s unlike any interior you’ve ever seen.
The Aurora Inn is the most traditional, reflecting its Federalist architecture with deep red hues, grand oil paintings of landscapes, and polished antiques. But it’s not stuffy—especially in the guest rooms, where floral comforters and turquoise and orange pillows abound. E.B. Morgan House is a playful ode to the Gilded Age. “[It] called for fine fabrics and finishes—lustrous silk drapes, velvet upholstery, remarkable decorative craftsmanship on trims—paired with fun, happy colors; touches of MacKenzie-Childs; and bold, modern art,” Rowland says. Those happy colors she mentioned? A pink-patterned dining room and a sherbet orange library.
Rowland House, where Rowland stays with her entire family every Thanksgiving, is perhaps the most eclectic of the bunch. It’s filled with antiques she found during her travels in Asia, hand-beaded chairs from Africa, and one guest room that’s painted floor to ceiling in Cortley Check, MacKenzie-Childs’s signature print.
Wallcourt Hall, thanks to a rogue sprinkler that ruined the entire interior pre-restoration, didn’t contain too many details to riff off of. So Rowland went with a modern interpretation: “I was inspired by images I’d seen of great interiors in British magazines, blending traditional textures like tweeds with modern silhouettes and bold colors patterns. I loved this approach and ran with it—hand-painted Dalmatian dots cover the walls in every bath, graphic tiles from Morocco form a herringbone pattern on the floor of the lobby, and bright orange hues of poppies serve as a hallmark color for the inn,” she says.
The look and feel of the fifth hotel, which as of January was still undergoing construction, hasn’t been determined yet. But if it’s like the others, it’ll be a mix of the classic and crazy—perhaps even more so since, according to Schloop, it’s probably the last property he, Rowland, and their team will fix up in Aurora. “From a kind of philosophical standpoint, I think this might be our last, just because there aren’t any other historic properties in prime downtown,” he says. “But also, from a business standpoint, we don’t want to get too big because part of what we’re selling here is the intimacy of the experience and the scale and the scope,” he adds.
But even if there are no more buildings to repair, sidewalks to mend, companies to turn around, or hotels to create, Rowland will never be done with Aurora. As she puts it: “Is any undertaking this worthy ever truly complete?”