In 1984, while on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, elementary school teacher Pleasant Rowland had a million-dollar idea: Tell the story of girlhood through the lens of history. While shopping for her two nieces, she lamented the picture-perfect Barbie as too sexual and Cabbage Patch Kids as too “scrunchy.” She soon launched the first three American Girl dolls and chapter books, which pushed themes of women’s empowerment by providing a window into the past: the Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II, among other pivotal periods. The dolls became wildly popular (and expensive), leading Rowland to eventually sell the franchise to Mattel in 1998 for a staggering $700 million.
Though her days helming American Girl have long passed, Rowland is still intent on bringing her vision to life, embarking on a decades-long passion project to transform Aurora, New York, home of her alma mater Wells College, into an idyllic recreation of the yesteryear world she built for her dolls. In 2001, she launched the Aurora Foundation and began renovating the sleepy Finger Lakes village’s dilapidated buildings into a meticulously restored hospitality campus nestled among the region’s bucolic meadows. At the time, she said the town reminded her “of the values and traditions of another, more tender time.” The Spa at the Inns of Aurora, which opened in June, joins five inns, a farm-to-table restaurant, and gastro pub, all on the same street.
Despite creating postcard-ready scenes of small-town life and an influx of tourism, the Inns at Aurora suffer from one glaring problem: Locals and others not in the upper echelons of the income bracket are often priced out, recalling the expensive selling points (up to $150) for most American Girl dolls that left less wealthy consumers feeling excluded. Though she hasn’t quite escaped the franchise’s largesse, Rowland is continuing her transformation of Aurora apace. In 2018, Vogue reported that she literally buried power lines, redid the sidewalks, and planted elm trees on Main Street. Each inn is also meticulously reconstructed in different historical styles that reflect when the structures themselves were built, proving her attention to detail still hasn’t waned.