Preservation Magazine, May/June 2002 issue

ALL DOLLED UP

When a wealthy benefactor descended upon the small college town of Aurora, N.Y., some residents learned to be careful what they wished for.

By Brad Edmondson

The Masonic Temple in the village of Aurora, N.Y., still displays its original paintings and artifacts. You can see them in the lodge's inner room, just where the founding brothers left them. Hanging from the rafters are a beehive, a pick, and a shovel to symbolize industriousness; a scythe, to show that one day we will all be cut to the same level; an ark, a reminder that life can be a rough journey; and an anchor, symbol of the faith that will get us through. The building has been used continuously by Freemasons for 183 years.

Lodge member George Peter points to a three-foot artifact, a ladder balanced on a book balanced on a globe. It's there to remind us that although we live in the world, we can reach the heavens by studying good books and climbing on the rungs of faith, hope, and charity. "The old ceremonies have beautiful language," he says. "One of my favorite passages describes our lodge as a place where 'the high, the low, the rich, the poor, can all meet together for the one common purpose of perpetuating each other's friendship and each other's love."

Aurora is halfway up the east shore of Cayuga Lake, a glacial trench that is 40 miles long and four miles wide where it meets the village. The lake makes Aurora a beautiful, isolated place. On three sides of the village are gently sloping forests and farms. To the west is the blue-gray, constantly shifting surface of deep water. The nearest gas station is six miles away, the nearest supermarket is 12, and things do not change quickly here. The latest Census counted 740 people in the village; in 1870, the count was 600. About 450 of these residents attend Wells College, a liberal arts school for women. This means that all of the permanent residents of Aurora could fit into a single lecture hall, and that perpetuating each other's friendship is serious business.

In 1800, Aurora was a new outpost on the nation's western frontier. Through the 19th century, it was a minor center for manufacturing and shipping. But for the last 100 years, it has been a company town. Wells College owns more than half of the land in the village, including several of the most prominent buildings off campus. The mayor, deputy mayor, and three of the four village trustees are college employees. The fourth trustee is the brother of a college board member. Differences in wealth and status exist in Aurora, of course, but they don't tend to segregate the residents of such a small place. The college president chats with the woman who runs the lunch counter, and farmers stand in line at the hardware store with professors of biology. The village isn't overrun with tourists; it looks lived in and devoted to doing its job. One visitor observed that quaintness seems to violate Aurora's zoning laws.

Call it charming, then. A winter evening's diversion could be a lecture on campus or a concert at the Morgan Opera House, followed by a drink at the 1833 Aurora Inn. A summer day could mean swimming at the college's dock and having ice cream at Dorie's. Residents and alumni both place a high value on this timeless, Chautauqua-like quality. Almost every building in the village is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the community has so far preserved its assets well. An 1899 Tudor Revival structure in the center of town contains the Opera House, which was beautifully restored in 1989 for concerts, lectures, and plays. Downstairs is the two-room Aurora Free Library, with high ceilings, plaster walls, and original oak fixtures. Community funds and labor restored the opera house and support it and the library.

"It is an extraordinary historic district," says Scott P. Heyl, president of the Preservation League of New York State, "one of the first places in the state that took a holistic approach to preservation. That is why the recent events there have been so frustrating."

Aurora is in an uproar these days as big changes bear down on it. The college's board, led by President Lisa Ryerson, has unveiled a long-term master plan that involves moving older campus buildings and tearing down modern ones. One of the buildings earmarked for demolition is designed by Walter Netsch, who also designed the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Off-campus, the college is a partner in a controversial renovation of the Aurora Inn, and there is talk of sprucing up all of the college's properties in the village.

Much of the fuel for this recent activity has come from Pleasant Thiele Rowland, a wealthy alumna with a strong interest in history. She and the college now own the inn and several other commercial buildings as partners in a limited liability corporation; Rowland controls the corporation, and she is contributing at least $4 million for renovation costs. Several years ago, she donated $2 million to redecorate public spaces on campus. Last year she bought the candy store and two of the largest houses in the village, paying sums that left locals goggle-eyed. She also paid $5.5 million to a bankruptcy court for the assets of MacKenzie-Childs, a manufacturer of pottery and upscale home furnishings that employs 250 people just north of town.

Rowland's interest in Aurora has created a bright spot in a region where many small towns are in an economic coma. She says that she bought MacKenzie-Childs so the plant and its jobs would stay in the area. Dorie's, the candy store that re-opened last summer under her management, now serves lunch and is a thriving social center amid worn commercial buildings. Many village residents are delighted by her attention. But others are concerned. Over the winter, workers gutted the interior of the Aurora Inn, a rare Federal-style carriage hotel that still had its original staircase and a largely intact interior until Rowland came along. They also demolished a small grocery store adjacent to the inn, which has been the site of a market since 1810. A group of residents and alumni called the Aurora Coalition filed suit to stop the renovation, contending that village officials bent the rules unlawfully to speed the plans along. While some Aurora folks are eager to see the spiffed-up village, others say they are fighting the first battle of a civil war.

The twist in the story is that Rowland acquired her fortune by serving up her own brand of history. She is the founder and former CEO of Pleasant Company, which had huge success in the 1990s with the American Girl series of historical books, dolls, clothing, and toys. Her products reprocess historical facts into charming, well-designed stories. Three years ago, she sold the company to Mattel for $700 million and retired. Now, as a full-time philanthropist, the expert at shining up history for an upscale audience has allied with a college president who is focused on maintaining the competitive position of her institution, and with locals eager to see new dollars in the town.

The flip side involves residents and alumnae trying to guard the interpretation of their history and control their future. "The precedents set by the Aurora Inn will have a big effect on future proposals. We think there will be many more to come," says Karen Hindenlang of the Aurora Coalition. "We're putting people on notice that the rules are going to be followed."

The National Trust and the Preservation League of New York joined the local coalition in the lawsuit because they saw Aurora as a place to take a stand on a national preservation problem. "Local governments do not always follow state laws where historic districts are concerned," says the League's Scott Heyl. "The law clearly states that projects with a significant impact on a historic district must do an extensive review before breaking ground, but we have difficulty getting local officials to pay attention to this when they're busy chasing dollars. And when someone challenges a local ruling, the courts often tell them that they don't have standing to file a lawsuit."

*****

In Chicago on this weekday morning in December, American Girl Place is packed. Steps away from North Michigan Avenue, next to the Ralph Lauren store and across the plaza from the water tower, the store's windows feature scenes of dolls sledding and opening presents, and carols play from hidden speakers. Inside, mothers, grandmothers, and girls from the ages of kindergarten to early adolescence wander through three stories of bright rooms. Many of the girls clutch American Girl dolls. They have the quiet, wide-eyed look of children in the presence of something really, really cool.

The American Girls Collection is American history for modern tastes, powered by state-of-the-art marketing. The store sells six distinct dolls; each comes from a different historical period, each has a story, and each story is told in an extensive line of books, clothing, and souvenirs, sold separately. The store also has a café and a theater with its own musical revue. The dolls include Samantha, the pampered daughter of a well-to-do New York family in 1904; Josefina, a Latino living in New Mexico in the 1830s; and Addy, a slave who follows the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia during the Civil War. The material is usually upbeat, emphasizing fun things like summer camps and tea parties, but it is also well researched and does not shy away from difficult subjects. In one of the books, Addy's slave master forces her to eat the worms she missed while weeding tobacco fields. This is a strategy Rowland has called "putting vitamins in chocolate cake."

It's hard to find fault with American Girl stuff, if you can afford it. A doll is $84, and relentlessly clever merchandising encourages you to go above that price point. Life-size dioramas across one wall of the store show how Christmas looked for each of the six girls. One of them explains that Addy's mama couldn't give her much for their first Christmas in Philadelphia, but that she still found a way to make sweet potato pudding, just like always. The table in the diorama has an iron skillet with orange pudding in it, an artful detail that fills you with sympathy for the poor girl and her family. Turn around, and you're invited to purchase small versions of the ones on the wall-for $178. Pleasant Company doesn't release information on customer demographics, but the crowd in the store is about what you'd expect: carefully coifed women and girls in upscale sportswear.

It's a long way from Michigan Avenue to rural upstate New York, where a doll usually costs less than $20 and comes from Wal-Mart. But American Girl fits in better in Aurora. The village has been home to private academies since 1800. Well-to-do merchants, professors, and lawyers have occupied stately homes overlooking the lake for just as long, so the village enjoys more than its share of the finer things. American Girl books are popular in the local library.

At the MacKenzie-Childs factory store just north of Aurora, a well-dressed woman murmurs over a painted glass cake stand that has been marked down from $150 to $98. The factory grounds are a former farm that has become a fantasy of a farm. Richard MacKenzie and Victoria Childs dismantled and moved choice 19th century barns onto the site, restored the farmhouse, and planted extensive Victorian gardens. Near the factory store is an ornate new Gothic-style structure, complete with finials, that turns out to be a chicken coop. After she bought the business, Pleasant Rowland persuaded the former manager of Chicago's American Girl store to be MacKenzie-Childs' new CEO.

Some Aurora residents fear that Rowland will do a MacKenzie-Childs on them, and that their village will become a fantasy of a village. But Aurora has always had its wealthy patrons. The grocery store Rowland recently tore down is on the site of a store opened by the village's first benefactor, the Morgan family . The Morgan mercantile grew into a large shipping business when Cayuga Lake was connected to the Erie Canal. The family built the Aurora Inn and paid three-quarters of the cost of the village's large stone Presbyterian Church; their patriarch, E.B. Morgan, went to Congress. One of E.B.'s friends and early business associates was Henry Wells, the founder of Wells Fargo and first president of American Express. Wells hired Alexander Jackson Davis to design a stone Italianate villa on his Aurora farm in 1852, then hired Andrew Jackson Downing to landscape it. He gave the farm and his fortune to the construction of Wells College, which opened in 1868. Wells had lost his fortune by the time the college opened, so E.B. donated an endowment.

A 19th-century college town for women had to be a place of high standards. When Aurora held a boat regatta in 1847, no betting was permitted. As late as 1900, there were no bars in the village; today there is one, and the college owns its building. Susanna Marriott, the headmistress of an early Quaker school for girls in Aurora, was an ardent abolitionist who scrupulously refused to use any products made by slave labor.

When young Pleasant Thiele enrolled at Wells in 1958, it was still a tight little village. Students were required to go to chapel, stay away from the bar, and wear skirts to dinner. Everyone stood when the dean entered the dining hall. Students also had curfews and complicated rules about leaving campus, and if they violated the rules they were grounded-"like kids," says Jane Dieckmann, an alumna from 1955 and the author of a history of Wells. It all made a powerful impression on Pleasant. "For me it had to do with the tall, ancient trees, the ravines, and sparkling lake, and the lovely historic homes and campus buildings," she said in a 2001 speech. "It was beautiful, it was timeless, and it became a part of me like no place in the world ever has."

"I didn't see anything exceptional in her at the time. She became exceptional later," says Joy Humes, who joined the Wells faculty in 1957 and taught Pleasant in a government course. But there is a clue to Pleasant's personality in the epigram that ran with her senior yearbook photo, a quote from Henry James: "Of course, for myself, I live intensely and am fed by life and my value, whatever it may be, is in my expression of that."

"She is the wealthiest alumnus Wells has ever had," says Humes, "and not only that, she made the money herself. Before Pleasant, most of our wealthy alumni got the money from their husbands."

*****

Rowland became an elementary school teacher after Wells because it was "the only acceptable career I could envision that would allow me to be a legitimate boss," she said in the 1995 Wells commencement address. The inspiration for the American Girl line came, she says, during a frustrating day of Christmas shopping for dolls. She put her life's savings into her idea and worked up materials about Kirsten, a Scandinavian immigrant girl in mid-19th-century Minnesota; Samantha, the pampered New York girl of 1904; and Molly, a girl growing up during World War II. She began selling dolls and books through the mail in 1986.

The idea was a hit, and Rowland extended the line to clothing and accessories for dolls, and clothing and accessories for girls who want to dress like their dolls. Then she began holding historic re-enactment parties for customers. In 1991, 11,000 people came to a tea party hosted by Felicity, a character whose story is set in Colonial Williamsburg. In 1993, she was named by Advertising Age as one of the top 100 marketers of the year. In 1996, Kirsten began starring in a "living history" program at Gammelgarden, a historic village in Scandia, Minn.

Those who have done business with Rowland describe a hard-nosed boss with a my-way-or-the-highway style. In 1994, she proposed to buy a turreted Queen Anne mansion in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and spend $2 million to turn it into a doll museum and the "home" of her fictional character Samantha. "She came to town on her high horse and tried to convince us that it would be wonderful," says Ralph Vigliotti, who was deputy mayor at the time. The village board was split because of the house's importance-a famous house locally, it had been featured in the film Ragtime-and because of the project's impact on a residential neighborhood. As the debate went on, says Vigliotti, "she became very pompous with us, very take-it-or-leave it."

After a year of controversy, Mount Kisco's board voted 3 to 2 to allow Rowland's project to move forward, with some modifications. Instead, she pulled out, announcing her departure in an ad in the local newspaper, and never went back. "She was a control freak," says Vigliotti.

The entrepreneurial drive also showed up in her first major donation to Wells. In 1995, shortly after Wells president Ryerson invited her to make the commencement speech, Rowland gave the $2 million to redecorate the college's public spaces. She didn't just write a check, however. "She was on campus all the time during the semester of renovations, but she rarely if ever spoke with students," remembers Alexis Bender, a Wells student in 1995. "She would walk around discussing new fabric or paint or pictures. It was almost like a movie, with five or six people following behind her like children."

Rowland went on a tear all over campus, fearlessly re-covering muted old chairs with bright floral patterns and replacing off-white paint with pink striped wallpaper. Not everyone was thrilled with her choices. The public rooms today "are great if you like red and green," says Jane Dieckmann. One room, she says, looks like a brothel. "I felt very betrayed by all of this, even if it was just furniture," says Bender.

After Rowland sold her company to Mattel, she proved just as aggressive in philanthropy as she was in business. The Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation was established in 1997 to advance historic preservation, the arts, and education. It had assets of $160.9 million in 2000, and it gave away $12.4 million and pledged $4.6 million more to some 90 organizations. The gifts included $2.5 million to the Chicago Botanical Garden and a challenge grant of $1.2 million to Ten Chimneys, the Wisconsin country estate built by Alfred Lunt and Joan Fontaine. "Her gift had an extraordinary effect on our ability to raise funds," says Sean Malone of Ten Chimneys, scheduled to open to the public in May 2003. Rowland is also a regular donor to Cornerstones Community Partnerships, which restores historic structures throughout New Mexico.

Rowland made another major outlay in 2000 for more personal reasons. She paid more then $5.8 million to buy White Sulphur Springs, a National Register-listed resort in Napa Valley that began in 1852. She rents the complex for $1 a year to the Hoffman Institute, a personal-growth center that charges students $3,150 for an eight-day program it calls The Quadrinity Process. The process, according to its Web site, "is designed to heal and transform negative, self-defeating patterns and bring about a powerful realignment and integration" of intellect, emotions, body, and spirit. Rowland went through the program in 1991 and became such an enthusiastic supporter that she has paid for many friends and family to take the process and learn about Hoffman concepts like "negative love syndrome" and the "light journey visualization." Hoffman Institute President Charles "Raz" Ingrasci says that the process has helped more than 50,000 people since 1967, and that research shows the positive effects are lasting. That may be so-but again, it's a style difference. In rural upstate New York, people tend to mull over their personal issues by going outside and shoveling snow.

"As a philanthropist," says Rowland, "I have sought projects that build, enrich, and beautify community in places that matter to me, for the enjoyment of those that live here today and for those in generations to come. I deeply believe that we are all profoundly impacted by our surroundings. If the places we live and work in are cared for we will feel cared for; and, if we feel cared for, we will take better care of each other. It is time to care for Aurora."

Aurora started waking up to Rowland in February 2001, when the Wells College board approved the Aurora Foundation deal. Within a few months, she had also purchased the candy store, two large homes, and MacKenzie-Childs. She has only spoken to village residents about her plans once, at a carefully scripted presentation. She professed her love for Aurora and urged a "civil, productive dialogue" with locals, but left the stage without taking questions. Many were impressed. "She's a heck of a businesswoman, and the plans for the inn are great," said one local resident, Bradley Mitchell. Others were puzzled. "If she thought Aurora was so wonderful," asked villager Ann Burch, "why does she want to change it?"

*****

Like most colleges, Wells is constantly soliciting wealthy patrons, and their need was particularly great seven years ago. Enrollment in 1995 was just over 300, and the trustees wanted it to be 450. Spending was running at 10 percent of endowment a year, and the trustees wanted it to be five percent. That was when they appointed as President Lisa Ryerson, a 1981 alumna who had spent most of her career as a Wells administrator. They didn't conduct a national search or ask the faculty first. They told Ryerson to shake things up, and she did.

Ryerson squeezed the college's budget by reducing part-time taching stasff, which made full-time faculty take on more work. She also led a $50 million fundraising campaign. Seventy percent of the 6,000 living alumni contributed, and to everyone's astonishment, they exceeded the goal. Late in 2001, Wells got another plum in a single bequest of $20.2 million. But their endowment was heavily invested in tech stocks, and it lost 21 percent of its value in fiscal 2001. Today the endowment stands at about $46 million. Last year 90 percent of the girls who applied to Wells were accepted, but only 37 percent enrolled. The college is not out of the woods yet.

"We are a residential liberal arts college for women only," Ryerson says, "and few places are as small as Wells. That is niche marketing." Wells competes with other small liberal arts colleges for good students, especially the women's colleges, and the competition is fierce. Wells took the gloves off in 1999 by cutting its tuition 30 percent. Then it continued pushing, by taking a hard look at its fixed assets.

After an internal study, the Wells board endorsed a master plan in fall 2000 that puts most campus buildings along a single pedestrian walkway and calls for a new science building and a new chapel. Several historic brick buildings would be moved. Several modern buildings would be torn down, including Walter Netsch's Long Library, which received critical acclaim when it opened in 1968 for its cantilevered roof and a unique design that resembles nine interlocking stars. But Wells claims that Long costs as much to heat as the rest of the campus buildings combined, and that the library has outgrown the space.

"We want our physical space to reflect our mission," Ryerson says. "We want a smaller, more intimate campus where people can find each other informally. We also want the spaces to relate more directly with the lake. But the plan isn't set in stone-we released it to generate discussion." That it did. More than 900 alumnae signed a petition to register concern that "faculty, alumnae, and students were not consulted" before the plan was released. The signers opposed the demolition and building-moving plans, and called the plan "so ill-conceived as to endanger the future viability of the college." The controversy is fine with Ryerson, who says, "My job is to find ways into a dialogue with people about the master plan."

The board also voted to close the Aurora Inn in October 2000 because it was losing up to $250,000 a year and because, says Ryerson, "we're not experts in running a country inn. But the college and the village both need the inn to be open. So I went looking for someone who could bring it back and run it well, and I was very fortunate to find Pleasant Rowland." She insists that there's no connection between the master plan's vision for campus buildings and the Aurora Foundation's plan for the village. But when projects include the same owners and developers, and when both campus and village are part of the same Historic District, there is a link.

That link is New York's State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which requires projects that have a significant impact on a historic district to submit to an extensive review, including an environmental impact statement and public comment. But in June 2001, the village's landmark commission approved the foundation's plans to demolish the grocery store and large sections of the Aurora Inn before SEQRA reviews were complete. They wrote, "We have determined that although they are old and we are used to them, [the inn and grocery store] are not particularly rare or unique or wonderful in their own right, as defined by the phrase 'historical significance.'" The panel also rejected the argument that the foundation's proposal and the college's master plan were connected. The chair of the four-person panel is a college employee.

People who were uneasy with Rowland's presence in May were stunned by the decision in June. The plans call for removing most of the inn's interior as well as two additions to the original building, turning the Federal-style central hall 90 degrees, re-orienting guest rooms to face the lake, creating new common areas, and putting in a new dining room. "The building code issue alone was outrageous," says Linda Schwab, a Wells professor. "The architect claimed that the original open staircase should be removed to conform to the fire code. But the plans they drew up still did not have a staircase wide enough to meet the code, so they asked for a variance because it is a historic building. They played it both ways and hoped to get away with it."

The State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) said in July that the community panel's decision was invalid, and that the project would have a "significant and irreversible impact on the historic district," in the words of OPRHP staff member Richard Lord. In August, the village planning board, with two of five members employed by Wells and a third renting a house from the college, approved the plan anyway. In September, the Aurora Coalition filed suit against the village to force the extensive reviews mandated for projects whose impacts are significant and adverse. "We want to see things done properly," said coalition member Pru Campbell Kirkpatrick.

The coalition's suit exposed a bitter division in the village. Signs attacking the coalition began to sprout on local lawns. "There's no jobs here," Frank Zimdhahl told the local paper. "I think other things will happen once this starts rolling. I'd love to have my kids grow up and not have to move to the Carolinas to find work." Others point out that the Aurora Inn had already been modified several times before, and-the bottom line-Rowland's money seemed to be the only alternative. "The Inn needs to be operational," says Jane Dieckmann. "I'm concerned about Pleasant too, but this is the only way I can see to get it open again."

The State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the village in October. Although the coalition appealed the decision, they could not post a $250,000 bond that Wells College insisted on for the delay of the project, in case the coalition lost its appeal. Demolition began in December. By the time the appeals court heard the case in February, the grocery store and additions had been removed, and most of the interior was also gone. On March 15, the state appeals court upheld the original court's ruling without comment. "We're disappointed not only in the result, but also that the appeals court did not share any opinion," says Bill Hurst, attorney for the Preservation League. "The ruling does not provide adequate guidance to local communities about what they should or should not be doing."

After the appeals court ruling, a statement form the Aurora Coalition said, "The destruction of the heart of Aurora -- the Inn and the market -- divided the village. We hope the foundation's other projects will not perpetuate that rift." Coalition member Pru Campbell Kirkpatrick told a local newspaper, "It's just so sad, such a travesty that both sides can't come to a mutually agreeable conclusion...It's very disappointing that money certainly does seem to have a lot of influence."

*****

Katie Waller lingers over a cup of coffee at the newly renovated Dorie's. She points out how the floor tiles were specially cut to evoke the originals, how the exterior sign was repainted but retained, and how the original door latch, the one so many village kids remember, was repaired but not replaced. The menu includes locally baked pies and delicious soup from the kitchen at MacKenzie-Childs. Seven different newspapers are delivered every day. Waller is the project director for Pleasant Rowland's Aurora activities, and she was told by Rowland to sweat these details. The effort paid off. The diner retains elements of the old but feels new, thanks to the intelligence of its design. It is-I can't help but say it-pleasant.

"The inn is going to be great," says Waller. "In good weather, everything will open out onto the lake. Fireplaces are an integral part of the design for winter guests. We're trying to preserve historic buildings while putting into them the things people today take for granted-phone connections, fax machines, good coffee, good bread."

The college promises that the original porches, furnishings, and some woodwork removed in the demolition will be returned. "Early pictures of the village inspired us to return the Inn to its original Federalist design," says Lisa Ryerson. The Inn's appeal, she says, comes from "the warmth and charm of this historic structure, which we have gone to great lengths to protect."

Some in the village are eager to ask Rowland to be their savior, too. Rowland has given the village $70,000 to complete the renovation of the 1795 Patrick Tavern, the oldest building in the district, which will become the local government's offices. She gave the local Aurorafest $5,000, which is a lot of money for a little street party. "It is absolutely what the village needs," says Mitchell, "and it isn't coming from anywhere else."

Others aren't so sure about the money. Rowland spent $1.1 million to acquire the Abbott House, for example, but that mansion was assessed at $291,000. She paid well over market rates for the other structures she bought, too. The Leffingwell House, which will become one of Rowland's personal homes, sold for roughly three times its assessed value. "If properties are re-assessed on the basis of what she paid, a lot of people are going to be hurt," says local Realtor Judy Warren. Real-estate prices in the village are rising fast.

"I love Aurora and have always enjoyed my time here," says Rowland. "I have many friends in the village. My permanent home is in Madison, Wisconsin, and will continue to be. I will be in Aurora as often as I am needed for this project and as often as the demands on the rest of my life...allow."

Some say that by spending heavily on the village's buildings, Rowland is changing its character. "One of the strengths of Aurora is that people who don't have much money live near people who do have a lot of money, and the money doesn't matter," says Joy Humes, who once served as village mayor. "People here have been worrying for years about Aurora being discovered and brought up by the wealthy. Now, because of Pleasant, it may happen."

But it's the fighting that bothers George Peter. "It's sad, because we all love the village and want the best for it," he says. Peter is the unoffical protector of the Masonic Temple, and he loves to show off its stunning room-within-a-room. To stand there is to stand with Eli Parker, a Seneca Indian who was voted into lodge membership in the 1850s by people old enough to remember the Indian wars. The lodge is probably Aurora's most important building. It looks solid, but Peter says it needs about $100,000 in structural work. Has Pleasant Rowland seen it? "No," he laughs. "Not yet."

Brad Edmondson, co-founder of ePodunk.com, is a writer living in Ithaca, N.Y.

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