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The Inns Of Aurora

Hotel Therapy

by Jim Gladstone
EB Morgan House and Rowland House (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Barbie may have her dream house, but the American Girls have an entire luxury resort.

E.B. Morgan House and Rowland House (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Another of the Inns’ proud queer employees, Chef Lou Ruscitto-Donato, oversees one of the resort’s most unique attractions, Aurora Cooks!, a clever, engaging hybrid of restaurant, dinner party and TV cooking show.

In the Finger Lakes region of Cayuga County, New York sits the tiny burg of Aurora.  Here, visitors can enjoy an unexpected 350 acre oasis of hospitality collectively known as The Inns of Aurora (391 Main Street, Aurora NY. Tel: 315-364-8888. innsofaurora.com). Located about 30 minutes from Cornell University and Ithaca College, the town of Aurora’s storied past has clear influences on the resort.

In the 1800s, Aurora was a major hub along the Erie Canal, where local farmers loaded barges with goods bound for New York City. Today, the Inns are the town’s second largest employer, surpassed only by Wells College, a bucolic bastion of liberal arts education founded in 1868 by Henry Wells, the namesake of the Wells Fargo company and founder of American Express. The school’s stated mission is to help young people “think critically, reason wisely and act humanely as they cultivate meaningful lives.”

Among this mighty but miniscule institution’s esteemed alumni is Pleasant Rowland (Class of 1962). And among Rowland’s many ventures along a winding, self-determined career path, including television journalism, education advocacy, and publishing, is the creation of the American Girl (americangirl.com) empire.

E.B. Morgan House Fall Exterior (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

E.B. Morgan House Fall Exterior (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Struck by her experience watching historical reenactments in Colonial Williamsburg, Rowland developed the American Girl dolls (along with accompanying books and accessories) and brought them to market in 1986.

Initially intended as a tool for engaging youngsters’ curiosity about U.S. history each period-costumed doll had a rich associated narrative: Kirsten was a Swedish immigrant to Minnesota in the 1850s; Felicity’s childhood was disrupted by the American Revolution; Addy escaped slavery during the Civil War. The line was a runaway success and, in 1998, the American Girls became corporate kin to Barbie when Rowland sold the brand to Mattel for $700 million.

Among the philanthropic beneficiaries of that sale was Rowland’s alma mater and its hometown. In 2001, with an initial pledge of $40 million, Rowland’s foundation formed a partnership with Wells College to support the revitalization of the once prosperous Aurora, bringing the economic benefits of upscale tourism to the area while helping to attract students and faculty members.  To date, over 15 buildings have been restored and a first-class resort destination established in what has evolved into an ongoing project. Since 2014, the Inns of Aurora have operated independently of Wells, while continuing to be a boon to the school and its community.

Among the secondary beneficiaries of Pleasant Rowland’s grand refurbishment of Aurora’s historic center are the fortunate guests who visit the Inns today and leave feeling a little restored themselves.

The clientele largely consists of couples and groups of friends who travel to Aurora from New York, Philadelphia, and other East Coast urban hubs to relax and reconnect beneath leafy boughs and soothing waters.

This is a place to breathe easy, sip a cool drink on a covered porch, take a dip in the lake, and luxuriate amidst what Rowland once referred to as the “traditions of another, more tender time.”

The resort’s 57 guest rooms are distributed among six historic buildings dotting both sides of Aurora’s strollable lakeside main street. The town’s original bed and breakfast, the Aurora Inn, is the flagship restoration, built in 1833 and decorated in colonial style, with an impressive collection of antique furnishings.

The E.B. Morgan House (1858) was originally a residential mansion; its formidable stone exterior is softened by expansive wrap-around porches and calming views of Lake Cayuga and the vineyards beyond.

Zabriskie House East Parlor (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Zabriskie House East Parlor (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Among the six guest quarters at Rowland House (1903) are four idiosyncratically designed “whimsy rooms” featuring colorfully patterned wallpapers and furnishings, eccentrically angled walls and corners, and an overall mood of playful escapism. Zabriskie House (1904) and Wallcourt Hall (1909), with 11 and 17 rooms respectively, frequently host retreat groups and organized gatherings.

Rowland House Room Two (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Rowland House Room Two (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Two-bedroom Orchard Cottage (circa 1850) is available strictly for private buyouts, but the five other properties can also be reserved in their entirety, providing unique venues for reunions, weddings, and other gatherings, with private catering available from Inns of Aurora for a single celebratory feast or every meal over the course of a multi-day stay.

Alex Schloop (Wells College, Class of 2012), describes Aurora as “my adopted hometown.” “I came here for school and never really left,” says Schloop.

Creative Director Alex Schloop (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Creative Director Alex Schloop (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

Schloop began working at the Inns during his student days and is now the resort’s Creative Director. Having first met Rowland when he was a student intern assigned to help organize her class’s 50th reunion, Schloop now regularly confers with the boss, who is based in Madison, Wisconsin, about the Inns of Aurora’s marketing, design, and the overall guest experience.

“I think I’ve been able to absorb some of her vision,” says Schloop. Prior to assuming his current role, has served “as a desk
clerk, an innkeeper, a marketer, and has done pretty much everything in between.

“Doing well in the hospitality business requires some training, but what really matters most is experience. That liberal arts education served me well, because you have to be a generalist. There are so many soft skills involved in doing a great job.

“Our staff members are great at reading our guests and anticipating what they might want. Some guests are very interested in engaging and conversing. Others prefer staff to be more at a distance.”

As one of several LGBTQ+ members of the resort’s core team, Schloop says that the Inns and the college share a common ethos of open-mindedness, curiosity and sociability.”

“Wells was the only school I applied to,” says Schloop, who grew up in another upstate New York town. “My high school counselor, Miss Gildersleeve, had me take a Myers-Briggs test which led me to look for a small school. When I visited Wells, I just loved it. I came back seven or eight times just as a prospective student,” he recalls.

“I majored in English literature and book arts, but I got to do a little of everything, which was encouraged. I worked on the yearbook, I did student government, and I was part of a baking group. Wells likes to say that they don’t just educate the mind, but the whole human being. That was definitely true for me.” Schloop said that as soon as he arrived for freshman year, he felt comfortable starting to openly identify as a gay man.

“The town and the school are tiny in terms of population, but my classmates and the faculty are very worldly.” Schloop proudly notes the Inns of Aurora have served as the venue for several same-sex weddings.

The freedom to explore varied avenues of interest enjoyed by students at Wells is echoed in the range of activities guests are offered by the Inns of Aurora. While they vary by season, opportunities for guests include fishing expeditions, wilderness skills seminars, talks and tours on Aurora architecture, and the history of the Finger Lakes.

Archery lessons, scenic cycling (on provided bikes), yoga, kayaking, and trail hiking are also available. The Inns’ staff outdoorsmen, Matt Stevenson and Mike Shaw, are both natives of the Finger Lakes region and eager to share their lifetimes’ knowledge of the local landscape, flora, and fauna with guests.

The area is also increasingly being recognized as a notable wine region. With over 100 vineyards nearby that oenophiles are encouraged to explore. The Inns provide shuttle service, so you can feel free to tipple as you please. Local wine pairings are a specialty at one of the Inns’ centerpiece eateries, 1833 Kitchen & Bar, situated in the town’s original hostelry At 1833 (named for the date that its site, the original village Inn, was built), expert pairings are crafted by Chef Eric Lamphere and Certified Sommelier Bernard Simmons. The dinner menu is at once comforting and freewheeling, with familiar dishes graced by creative embellishments: Duck breast is glazed with citrus chili marmalade; short ribs takes on a Mexican accent with accompanying Oaxacan polenta cake; and smoked local fish are served with yuzu mousse.

The Inns of Aurora’s newly constructed spa complex (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

The Inns of Aurora’s newly constructed spa complex (Photo by The Inns of Aurora)

The Inns of Aurora’s contemporary crown jewel is its newly constructed spa complex, which opened in 2021. Located on the crest of a hill just above the town center and reachable by short walk or free shuttle, the impressive offerings include separate men’s, women’s. and co-ed wet areas; two hydrotherapy circuits; a sun-drenched café, and pools with soaking tubs both indoors and out.

Creative Director Schloop says that as one of the most luxurious destination spas in the northeastern U.S., the facility should build the prominence of the Inns, which have long done a booming business in the warmer months, as a year-round destination.

Another of the Inns’ proud queer employees, Chef Lou Ruscitto-Donato, oversees one of the resort’s most unique attractions, Aurora Cooks!, a clever, engaging hybrid of restaurant, dinner party and TV cooking show.

Chef Lou Ruscitto-Donato

Chef Lou Ruscitto-Donato

Behind a modest Main Street storefront, a sleek open kitchen has been designed with strategically placed video cameras and monitors so guests seated at the 12-seat C-shaped counter can all have a perfect view of the chef at work.

Six nights a week, Ruscitto-Donato invites guests deep into the creative process of planning and cooking a multicourse or family-style meal. Sourcing much of her produce from local farmers, Ruscitto-Donato, who has lived in the area for nearly 20 years, has stories to share about the people and personalities behind her impeccably fresh ingredients.

Chatting and answering questions about technique and tricks-of-the-trade as she prepares each night’s set menu, the chef clearly loves talking about food with people who appreciate eating it. The experience is at once informal and intimate. Diners get to know each other as well as the chef. “This is a dream job,” says Ruscitto-Donato, “Selfishly, I wish a younger me had found it earlier in my life.”

Having worked in male dominated restaurant kitchens for years, experiencing harassment and disrespect, Ruscitto-Donato says she loves the atmosphere, independence, and broad creative latitude she has at Aurora Cooks!

“Our guests tend to be well-educated and open-minded, and everyone who works at the Inns is encouraged to fully be ourselves and be genuine. I’m comfortable mentioning my wife and kids when I’m cooking.”

Ranging from homey Italian cuisine to Wagyu beef feasts, meal themes and prices change from night to night, but they’re all served with a healthy (and entertaining) side of informative banter. (Menus can be previewed before making a reservation).

In addition to presiding over these interactive dinners, Ruscitto-Donato also facilitates four afternoon workshops a week at Aurora Cooks! Drawing from over two dozen lessons she’s developed over the past two years, these sessions run the gamut from olive oil tastings, to whiskey and ice cream pairings, to quick pickling.

“I’m passionate about what I do,” says Ruscitto-Donato, “And I’m proud to work at a place that gives us such freedom and support.”

Given the inspiration of Wells College, the founding vision of Pleasant Rowland, and the attentive care of employees like Ruscitto-Donato and Schloop, it’s little surprise that the Inns of Aurora have become a popular destination for travelers who like to celebrate life to the fullest every day.

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