Hidden Gem: Bygone Opulence on Afton Mountain

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Swannanoa Palace was built in 1912 by James Dooley and modelled after the Villa Medici in Rome. Photo: K. Steele/Wikipedia.org

Rising above Rockfish Gap on Afton Mountain is an unexpectedly magnificent white marble palace modelled after the Italian Renaissance Villa de Medici in Rome. Designed by architects Baskerville and Noland and finished in 1912, Swannanoa is an Indian name also given to a river and census-designated place in North Carolina. Swannanoa palace took several years to build and employed 300 artisans, all speaking different languages. The Georgian marble was carried to the mountaintop from Afton Depot. The sumptuous 24,000-square-foot mansion sits on 600 acres and features two towers, front columns supporting an arched portico, hand-carved horse and swan cartouche over the door, 52 rooms including a baronial hall, 20’ ceilings, terraced gardens with pergola, a 10’ x 12’ Tiffany window, and of course, stunning mountain views.

It was built as a summer getaway by Richmond lawyer, politician, railroad executive, and philanthropist James Dooley (1841-1922). The palace was a gift and token of love for his wife Sallie May, whose stained glass portrait rises above the grand staircase. With cutting edge technology for its time, it was the first house in Nelson County (The property straddles both Nelson and Augusta Counties) to have electricity, as well as telephones, dumbwaiter, and elevator.

Victoria Airisun Wonderli, author of Swannanoa Palace: A Pictorial History—Its Past and People, presented a talk about the history of this little known local landmark at the Old Trail Lodge on August 16. She announced a series of fall tours as well as plans to open the Russell museum in Waynesboro in the near future. J.B. Yount III, a descendant of the Dooleys, wrote the foreword and edited Wonderli’s book. It was published in 2012 to celebrate the centennial of this masterpiece, which is listed on both the national and Virginia registers of historic places. Yount is also the author of Remembered for Love: Lao Russell of Swannanoa (2004). Wonderli, a longtime friend of the owners and tour guide at the mansion, recently moved into one of the farm houses on the property. “When you’re called to the mountain, you’re called to the mountain,” she said. 

Swannanoa Palace: a Pictorial History by Victoria Airisun Wonderli is available for sale during the fall weekend tours.

Swannanoa has had only two owners and three main resident families in its 106 years of existence: the Dooleys, the Russells, and the Dulaneys. Irish immigrant John Dooley (1811-1868) established the Great Southern Hat & Cap Manufactory in Richmond, which was the largest hat manufacturer in the south and made hats for Civil War cadets. He amassed a fortune investing in the railroads, which he left to his son, Major James Dooley, who attended Georgetown University to become a lawyer and served in the Civil War. Dooley helped to establish the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad as well as representing Richmond in the Virginia House of Delegates. He married Sallie May of Staunton in 1869, and built Maymont (originally called May Mont after his wife) in Richmond in 1890. In 1911, he purchased 763 acres near (or perhaps on) the site of the Afton Mountain Inn—which burned down in the late 1800s—and built the palace as a summer getaway and love token for his wife. Sallie’s sisters often came from Staunton to spend summers with her at Swannanoa. The furniture, which was imported from Europe, included a swan bed in Sallie Mae’s bedroom, a swan rocker, and a swan desk. Most of the original Swannanoa furniture may now be seen at Maymont, but Dooley’s master bedroom at Swannanoa is now open for the first time. 

After Dooley and Sallie May died in the early 1920s, they bequeathed Maymont to the city of Richmond, and it remains open to the public. Swannanoa, however, was left to Sallie’s sisters, who sold it to the Valley Corporation of Richmond. They opened a country club and golf course in 1929, but the Great Depression caused them to close it in 1932. During that time they built the stone building rumored to house the region’s best moonshine distillery, and President Calvin Coolidge visited the country club in 1927. The house remained vacant until 1944, when it was inherited by James F. Dulaney. The Dulaney family has owned it ever since. 

The longest residents of Swannanoa—from 1948 to 1988—were Dr. Walter Russell and his wife, Lao. Russell was a renowned early 20th century artist—best known for his portraits of children—as well as an author, architect, sculptor, composer, and philosopher. “He was a master of all the fine arts,” Wonderli explained. Born in Boston in 1871, he wrote and illustrated three children’s books and sculpted the busts of Mark Twain and others. He was commissioned in 1943 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sculpt the Four Freedoms, a replica of which is currently housed at Swannanoa. When he died in 1963, Walter Cronkite called him the “Leonardo da Vinci of our time.” He first wrote his prospectus for a University of Science and Philosophy in 1936, and his primary legacy is his unique Cosmogony, developed in his books The Universal One (1926), The Secret of Light (1947), and A New Concept of the Universe (1953).  

Lao Russell started life as Daisy Ebbing, an Irish model and great beauty, who founded a successful health and beauty business in Europe. When she read Walter Russell’s book—based on his belief that the foundation of the universe is love, balance, and unity—she called him to declare that she felt destined to help him in his work. Walter Russell dubbed her Lao after Chinese philosopher Lao T’su (aka Laozi), reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and founder of Taoism. Walter and Russell travelled across the country together, painting and searching for a fitting location for his university, with Lao revealing her conviction that they would establish the institute on a mountain top. When they found Swannanoa, they knew it was what they had been looking for. Marrying in 1948 (after divorcing first spouses), they leased the property with an option to buy that same year, spent two years cleaning and renovating it, and opened the University of Science and Philosophy in 1950. Hosting classes and conferences there for many years, they were sadly never able to buy the property. 

Swannanoa’s once extensive terraced gardens have fallen into disrepair. Photo: Clover Carroll.

After Lao died in 1988, Swannanoa housed the Russell Museum, which showcased the extensive collection of Walter Russell’s artwork until 1998. In storage for over 20 years, this collection will soon once again be available for viewing at the Russell Museum in Waynesboro, for which a fundraiser is underway at www.philosophy.org. The current owner, Richard Dulaney, who inherited the property from one of the businessmen who purchased it in the 1920s, still lives on the mountain and opens the house to the public. 

Guided tours will be offered every weekend in September and October, plus the first weekend in November, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost is $10 per person, with children under 12 free. To find the mansion, follow 250 West up Afton Mountain. Take the right hand exit 99 toward Shenandoah National Park. Turn left toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, but before you get there bear right on Rt. 610. Drive up the mountain and bear right again onto Swannanoa Lane. Visit www.virginia.org/Listings/HistoricSites/SwannanoaPalace or check the Swannanoa Facebook page for updated schedules. 

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