Aurora's Amazing Makeover

Until recently, the diminutive but picturesque village of Aurora was just a little-known town speck in the Finger Lakes, albeit one with million-dollar views from the east shore of Cayuga Lake. It basically consisted of a main street, a tiny women's college, and an idiosyncratic ceramics factory. In the past few years, though, it has undergone a startling makeover. For a while, whispers could be heard all over the Finger Lakes: "Did you hear about the town that rich woman bought?" As it turns out, Pleasant Rowland, who attended Wells College in Aurora and made a fortune with her American Girl dolls (which she sold to Mattel), didn't exactly purchase the town. Rather, she decided to direct her philanthropy toward her alma mater, bestowing both the college and the town with a series of gifts, including multimillion-dollar restorations of historic buildings owned by the college. She also bailed out MacKenzie-Childs, a whimsical but previously bankrupt ceramics maker. Rowland's Aurora Foundation gutted and resurrected the Aurora Inn, 391 Main St., Aurora, NY 13026 (tel. 866/364-8808 or 315/364-8888; fax 315/364-8887;; $150-$325 double, $225-$400 suite; open May-Oct), owned by the college and overlooking the lake. The foundation completely transformed the 1833 inn into a boutique hotel of rich, though restrained, style. It is now one of the most exquisite country inns in the Finger Lakes region, with gorgeously decorated rooms (several with decks overlooking the lake), a luxurious restaurant, and services to match a much larger hotel (the Aurora Inn has just 10 rooms). Check out special packages and summer events (such as a lake wine cruise) online. The newest luxury boutique inn to hit the shores of Cayuga Lake is the stylish E.B. Morgan House, 431 Main St. (tel. 866/364-8808 or 315/364-8888; fax 315/364-8887;; $175-$350 double; open year-round), with seven swank and boldly colored rooms with marble baths and modern art in a notable mid-19th-century Italianate mansion (which originally belonged to the co-founder of The New York Times and American Express).

Other recent additions to the previously under-endowed town -- which didn't even have a gas station -- are a village market, a pizza restaurant, and an ice-cream parlor. The Victorian Morgan Opera House (tel. 315/364-5437), on the second floor of the Tudor-style Aurora Free Library, was also restored with the help of MacKenzie-Childs. Aurora, on the National Register of Historic Places, remains tiny, but its bold transformation has left some historians and preservationists nervous about the remaking of the town's historic buildings. For many others, including many residents of Aurora, it's hard not to see it as a hopeful beacon of revitalization across the Finger Lakes.

A couple of miles north of town, MacKenzie-Childs, 3260 Rte. 90 (tel. 888/665-1999 or 315/364-6118;, makes uniquely fanciful and brightly colored handmade ceramics, glassware, and furniture that might be called modern baroque. You'll either love it or hate it (picture chairs with large fishes forming the backs painted with clouds and swirling pastels or fringed, tufted stools with circus tent stripes). The headquarters and factory are ensconced in a 65-acre Victorian farm campus that is as stunning as its products. The visitor center presents behind-the-scenes studio tours daily from 9am to 5pm. Visitors can tour the utterly incredible, dreamlike 19th-century Farmhouse, done up in high MacKenzie-Childs Victorian style, with four rooms (40 min.; daily 10am-4pm; free admission). For now, the equally spectacular, but even more mind-bending, Restaurant MacKenzie-Childs is no longer open for meals or tea. (Hopefully, they'll find a way to make it operational again, because it looks as though it were decorated by someone dreaming of Alice in Wonderland while on acid, and it's not currently visited on the tour.) Also on campus is a full shop of tableware and home furnishings, as well as a uniquely decorated hot-dog cart.

The original creators and owners of MacKenzie-Childs have opened their fanciful homestead in nearby Kings Ferry as a small and decidedly funky inn. If you like their dinnerware, you'll love staying at Home Again, 1671 Rte. 90, King Ferry (tel. 315/364-8615;, decorated in full-on MacKenzie-Childs style. The six idiosyncratic rooms range from $90 for a childlike space to $200 for the master bedroom suite, which occupies the entire third floor of the house. Breakfast is DIY (do-it-yourself). For reservations, e-mail

For breakfast or lunch in Aurora, check out the counter or back deck at Dorie's, 283 Main St. (tel. 315/364-8818), a nostalgic ice-cream and soda fountain (Sun-Thurs 7am-8pm, Fri-Sat 7am-9pm), or yummy Pizza Aurora, a cute and brightly colored artisanal pie maker across the street in a 1940s garage (Mon-Thurs 11am-8pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun noon-8pm).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.