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NSG Visit August 20, 2005

Aurora, New York


Bill Treichler

Twenty members of the New Society of the Genesee drove to Aurora, New York, on Saturday, August 20th to visit the Aurora Library and Morgan Opera House building, the Masonic Temple, the Aurora Inn, and other sites in Aurora, including Wells College. Douglas Fisher had made arrangements for our visit.

At 10:00 am we were greeted by David Correll on the front steps of the English-Tudor-Revival-style building that houses the Aurora Free Library on the main floor, and the Morgan Opera House on the upper floor. David told us Louise Morgan Zabriskie, a daughter in the prominent Morgan family of Aurora, paid for the construction of the building in 1899. The Zabriskie family gave the property with the building in 1941 to the Aurora Free Library Board of Trustees. Since the 1980s a preservation committee has been restoring the roof and outside walls of the structure and the interior of the opera house.

Going inside, we walked through the library and the children's reading room behind, which had housed the Ledyard town offices until 1996. Then we climbed stairs to the auditorium where we saw the vaulted ceiling, a stage with a proscenium arch formed of tin, painted with green, gold and plumb colors. Both David Correll and George Peter, our guides, pointed out features of the hall: the balconies at the back, the spindles in the railings, and the original electric lamps for nighttime illumination spaced around side walls and the arch at the back. They turned on the lights to demonstrate that they still do work.

There were enough seats for the population of Aurora when Morgan Opera House was built in 1899. Lectures, concerts and vaudeville acts, probably, were presented on the stage. From the 1920s, motion pictures were shown, but movie houses and television brought a decline in attendance. The hall was unused from the early 1940s until 1980 when a concert was held as renovations began. Now with continuing refurbishing of the building, musical performances and children's and student theater productions are increasing. For 2005, 13 performances were scheduled, plus two added unscheduled productions: The "Geriactors" on September 25 and "Masonic Composers and Writers" on October 2.

From the Morgan Opera House we walked up Cherry Street one block, then down a cross street to a barn where we were shown a real Wells Fargo coach fully reconditioned that had been brought back from the West. Parked alongside was a horse-drawn omnibus used to transport Wells College students to and from the railroad station. After examining under carriages, braking mechanisms and looking into the interiors of the conveyances, we walked back along Cherry Street to Main Street and then south for a distance to the Aurora Masonic Center.

The neo-classical style frame building was put up in 1819 and is the oldest in New York erected by a Royal Arch Chapter. Governor DeWitt Clinton came to lay the cornerstone. The Masonic Temple was built by the Aurora Chapter #64; they invited the Scipio Lodge #58 to meet in the building. The Scipio Lodge formed in 1795 and met first in a room of Cayuga Academy then in a temple built in 1806 which exists now as a private home. Lodge #58 was given up in 1827 during the Morgan affair, then reinstituted in 1846 as Scipio Lodge #110. The building continues to function as a Masonic lodge.

George Peter and several other lodge fellows invited us to enter through the front door between louvered side panels and beneath fan arches in a plain-boarded wall all surrounded by two pilasters with ornate capitals supporting a large ornamented keystone-topped arch. Measured drawings of the building appeared in the August 1917 Architectural Review. The Masonic Center Historical Society has an exhibition set of these drawings. The building was sought by the Genesee Country Museum for their village.

Through the front doorway, we entered a large ground-floor room where there are displays of pictures, an ornate Masonic apron and literature about Freemasonry. This room had been rented for use as a woodworking shop for years, a church for several years and later as a schoolroom for awhile. Our guides took us up a stairway at the front to a narrow hallway running along the outer wall to the back of the building to an entrance into the lodge sanctum. This sanctum is actually a room within a room with hallways on all sides that provide seclusion from the outside. The side walls of the inner room have small, curtained windows. The ceiling is a round vault. All about are Masonic symbols and relics. At the far end, the east end, is the place of the lodge master and at the opposite end by the entrance, the second ranking officer. Alongside are benches for the members and on one side the station of the third ranking officer. The Aurora Masonic Center exists to maintain the historical and structural integrity of the historic building; to keep it open to the public on a routine schedule and to preserve the documents, books, relics and records of the Scipio Lodge # 110 and the County of Cayuga.

Back outside on Main Street, we walked north to the Aurora Inn for luncheon. The inn has been completely remodeled and handsomely furnished with oil paintings, a large tall-case clock near the entrance and other period furniture and prints. The restoration of the inn and the market next door is just part of the contributions that Wells College alumna, and originator of American Girl dolls and books, Pleasant Rowland, has made to the rebuilding of Aurora.

George Peter and friends came along for a leisurely lunch and conversation. Afterwards everyone was free to explore the village and Wells College campus by themselves.

Copyright 2005, Bill Treichler
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