With its Carrara marble, terraced English gardens, and Tiffany stained glass, Swannanoa is one of the few Virginia estates that can rival the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. It was a love song built by a successful railroad baron as a gift for his wife. The Italianate palace was later leased to a convent and then a university for fifty years, before eventually returning to the family who has owned it for three generations.
Recent years have not been kind to Swannanoa. The owners’ resources have been spread thin after millions were spent on upkeep. But it wasn’t enough, and the once-proud estate continues to deteriorate. Today the mansion serves out its life hosting paranormal sleepovers and weekend weddings. Fortunately tours are available, which offers explorers a rare opportunity to legally visit a decaying piece of history before it is lost.
cover photo courtesy Mary Mintz
Rockfish Gap & the Dooleys
About five miles east of Waynesboro is Rockfish Gap, a low crossing point through Virginia’s share of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its comparatively traversable terrain across Afton Mountain made it an attractive location for a railroad crossing.
The Blue Ridge Railroad (incorporated in 1849) and the subsequent Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (incorporated in 1869) would take advantage of this low passage when they began offering rail service through the gap as early as 1858.
Rail access was an important reason the location was selected by millionaire philanthropists Major James Henry Dooley (1841-1922) and his wife, Sarah “Sallie” O. May (1846 – 1925) as a build site for their new summer home.
James Dooley studied at Georgetown, then served as a lieutenant in the Confederate Army when he suffered an injury during the Battle of Williamsburg. After his time in the service, Dooley finished school and subsequently worked as a lawyer before eventually being elected to the Virginia State Legislature. He was also a real estate and railroad magnate, having founded the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, served on the board of Richmond and Danville Railroad, and served as director for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
[ Did You Know? James Dooley is often referred to as “Major Dooley,” although he never achieved that rank. It was a self-appointed title James began using to honor his father after his father’s death in 1868. ]
Sallie May was from a prominent Virginian family with roots to the original settlers and service in state governance. She was an intellectual with published works of poetry and short stories. Sallie was also a founding regent of the first chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Virginia. She was a charter member of the Colonial Dames in Virginia, a member of the Order of the Crown (Americans of royal descent), and a prominent supporter of the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Virginia Historical Society.
The couple wed in 1869 and eventually became well-known for their philanthropy, examples of which include James Dooley’s three million dollar donation to St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Sallie May’s gift of $500,000 to the Crippled Children’s Hospital and more than two million dollars to various Episcopal causes.
James and Sallie built their primary residence in Richmond in 1886 when they broke ground on their Victorian home, Maymont. The 100-acre estate still stands today and is now a museum of all things Dooley and the Gilded Age (pictured).
When the two were married James promised Sallie he would build her a palatial summer retreat. A busy life delayed action by the couple until after their 43rd wedding anniversary. By 1911 James and Sallie were advancing in years – he was 70 and she was 65.
Rockfish Gap was chosen because Sallie, who was originally from Staunton, Virginia, had spent parts of her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains. James appreciated the site’s rail access and beautiful sweeping views of mountainous, undeveloped land. The couple purchased 1,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains from J. B. Yount. In mid-April of 1911 James and twenty associates spent a week surveying his recent purchase to determine the best location to build their estate. By June the blueprints and elevations for Swannanoa had been printed.
courtesy Mary Mintz
The Dooleys selected Richmond architect Henry E. Baskervill of Noland and Baskervill to design the palace while Basic City’s Mr. Ree Ellis (pictured) was hired to build it. Inspiration was served by Rome’s Villa Medici, a famous Italian mannerist villa built in the sixteenth century.
Construction began in 1912 with the bulk of the exterior being completed in 1913. Because of the site’s remote location, workers were offered quarters on site. Laborers earned $1.50 per day, and if they were hungry, fifty of those cents went toward the catered meals.
Interior treatments would continue for eight years and required the skilled hands of 300 artisans to complete. Plasterers, upholsterers, and wood carvers dressed up the house with coffered ceilings, hand-tooled leather, and teak wood paneling.
Stone cutters delicately placed tons of white Carrara marble, imported from Northern Italy and hauled up the mountain by mule and rail.
At the top of a grand marble staircase is a Louis C. Tiffany Studios stained glass image of Sallie May Dooley in her garden at Swannanoa. The 4,000-piece window cost $100,000 to create in 1912, and is the largest Tiffany installation in a house in the United States.
Enclosing the staircase is a domed ceiling with allegorical frescoes featuring Sallie May and cherubs. On one wall of the landing is a heraldic crest of England; on the other the state seal of Virginia. The ground floor rooms feature liberal use of oak parquet flooring and three-quarter paneling topped by a plate rail.
The second floor contains eight rooms and four baths. Mrs. Dooley occupied the Swan Room, on the front west corner of the second floor and easily identified by the four swans painted on the ceiling.
On the third floor are two bedrooms connected by a bathroom. Each bedroom in the home has a fireplace. A dumb-waiter system brought food from the basement kitchen to the first-floor dining room. Outside, the rear of the home faces a $500,000 terraced garden, across which stood a long pergola that spans the width of the house.
Up the hill from the pergola was a stone water tower with viewing platform that offered expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Next to the house a commodious stone stable outbuilding originally housed horses, then horseless carriages. Its second floor contains quarters for the coachman and chauffeur, and its basement was home to the estate’s power plant.
Swannanoa was the first house in Nelson County to have electricity, the first to have an elevator, and the first home to have hot and cold running water. It had its own telephone system: Four phones connected Sallie May’s bedroom and James Dooley’s study to the butler’s pantry and stable. The main building has a three-story, five-bay central section flanked by two four-story towers. Inside, thirty-six rooms and seven bathrooms share 52,000 square feet of interior space.
All said and done, the Dooley’s summer home cost two million dollars to build in 1912. Adjusted for inflation, that number jumps to $48.7 million in 2016. Sound expensive? It’s a relative bargain compared to how much it would cost to build new today. In 1953 a newspaper article discovered it would cost $15 million to build the estate at that time. Meanwhile the Dooley’s original $2 million investment, adjusted for inflation to 1953, was ‘just’ $5.4 million.
The Dooleys dubbed their summer palace Swannanoa. There are several suggestions as to the genesis of the name, the most common was Sallie’s reported fondness for the bird and her appreciation of the fact they mated for life. An explanation offered by the second couple to occupy the home cited the word’s Native American origins, where Swannanoa roughly means “land of beauty.”
Swannanoa’s current owners believe it might be a combination of the two, citing the Dooleys were known to have stayed at the Biltmore in North Carolina. The famed estate is located near the Swannanoa River, named by the Cherokee. Supporting this version is the depiction of a swan and paddle above the main entrance to the home (pictured).
By the time Swannanoa was completed the Dooleys were already advanced in years. Their occupancy was limited to twelve years, from 1913 until 1925. During that time the Dooleys and a staff of twelve occupied the mansion from May until October.
James H. Dooley suffered a stroke and died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1922. He left their Maymont and Swannanoa homes to Sallie, who continued to spend time in each residence until her death three years later.
Sallie May Dooley died in the Swan Room at Swannanoa in September of 1925. Today Sallie’s swan bed is on display at Maymont. James and Sallie are interred in the mausoleum at their winter estate in Richmond.
Swannanoa Country Club
Because the couple never had children, Swannanoa was left to James Dooley’s sisters. They quickly realized they were ill-equipped to maintain such a grand estate and decided to sell it. In July of 1926 the sisters sold the estate to Swannanoa Estates, Inc. The group, led by Oliver J. Sands, turned the property into a country club by adding a golf course, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Swannanoa itself became the clubhouse.
During its time as a country club Swannanoa hosted some of the country’s elite. The best reported visit was the four-day stay by President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace during Thanksgiving of 1928.
Newspapers reported “Mountains Lure Coolidge for Thanksgiving” as the President made his way to the Blue Ridge Mountains for a hunt. The Coolidges were such fans of Swannanoa there was a brief push to have the estate become the “Summer White House.”
News coverage of President Coolidge’s 1928 Swannanoa visit
While the club was beautiful, it was not a financial success. The stock market crash in October of 1929 nearly bankrupted Swannanoa Estates, which was forced to sell assets to stay afloat. The company failed in 1932, and by March of 1934 Swannanoa was in receivership.
At a commissioner’s sale in 1935, Dooley heir Miss Alice E. Dooley and associate Mrs. Josephine E. Houston purchased Swannanoa and 750 of its surrounding acres for $179,700. They made several unsuccessful attempts to continue developing and operating the country club, eventually settling for a short-term lease to an order of nuns. The nuns turned Swannanoa into a convent, in which capacity it served for one year until the nuns left in 1936.
For the next twelve years Swannanoa was abandoned. During this time, adventuresome kids frequently visited the property and roller-skated in its foyer. The landscaping was unkempt and the golf course abandoned. The house was looted and animals moved in while parts of the house was exposed to the elements. Miraculously, the Tiffany window remained intact.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941, the Navy briefly considered purchasing Swannanoa for use as a secret interrogation facility. It was realized Congress would not approve a purchase of such a palatial structure, so the Navy opted to go with P.O. Box 1142 at Fort Hunt instead.
Skyline Swannanoa, Inc.
From 1936 until 1941 the property taxes went unpaid. The past-due bill was eventually paid in 1943 by the Valley Corporation, a group said to represent the Dooley heirs. The Valley Corporation then purchased the property for $45,000 at public auction on May 20th, 1944, before selling it five months later to Alvin Tandy Dulaney of the Skyline Swannanoa Corporation for $60,100.
Dulaney was an early oil magnate, having founded Charlottesville Oil in 1929. He established the Skyline Swannanoa Corporation in October of 1944 for the purpose of acquiring land around – and developing – Afton Mountain.
Swannanoa had fallen into a state of disrepair, but it was not the main driver of the Dulaney purchase. More important to the oil man were the development opportunities presented by an expected rise in vehicular travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For the next four years the house remained unused while Skyline Swannanoa focused its efforts on construction of a restaurant down the hill, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 1947 the company filed a property tax dispute against Nelson County challenging its valuations for the unkempt estate, and won. The following year Skyline Swannanoa, Inc. opened a Howard Johnson restaurant, its first of many businesses on Afton Mountain.
The Russells & University of Science and Philosophy
In 1948 Dr. Walter Russell and his wife Lao were searching for a new home for their art and cosmic consciousness center. Walter Russell (1871-1963) was a talented luminary known for his artistry, music, philosophy, sculpting, and writing. He educated himself after dropping out of school at age nine and later predicted the existence of specific isotopes. Also a gifted artisan, Russell painted the Roosevelt family and sculpted busts of Thomas Edison and Mark Twain.
Lao Russell (1904-1988), whose birth name was Daisy Grace Cook, was originally from England and a self-made woman. A gifted child, Lao was writing stories by age seven and selling paintings by age ten. In the 1920s she created the country’s largest mail-order beauty businesses. She later changed her name to Lao in honor of Taoist author Lao Tzu.
The couple met in 1946 and married two years later. Despite being separated by more than thirty years in age, the two shared belief system and common desire to enlighten humankind.
When Walter and Lao first visited Swannanoa, Lao immediately felt a connection. While overlooking the valley she remarked that it resembled a vision she had in a dream two years prior. Walter needed no further convincing; a deal was struck between Skyline Swannanoa and the Russells for the old mansion. The couple signed a fifty-year agreement to lease the home and gardens. After the agreement was signed eight moving vans carrying 36 tons of artwork and sculpture unloaded the vast Russell collection from their previous residences.
It was Swannanoa where Walter and Lao established the Walter Russell Foundation in 1949, the precursor to the University of the Science of Man, and as it is known today, the University of Science and Philosophy (USP). Walter and Lao’s school offered a unique home-study “Course in Cosmic Consciousness,” a version of which is still available today.
Hear Dr. Russell:
The Russells claimed the University of Science and Philosophy was “the first University ever to be founded whose sole purpose is the awakening of that divine spark of man’s spiritual nature, that alone can give birth to a united and enduring civilization, with its desired pinnacle of peace, happiness and prosperity, which all men eternally seek.”
The couple’s contributions in cosmic consciousness and universal light are known, however less understood was the importance of Lao’s involvement in the restoration of Swannanoa. First-hand accounts recall Mrs. Russell very capably doing the dirty work, repairing wood paneling and mending broken marble. Neighbors claim they witnessed Lao doing “an enormous amount of work with her own hands,” helping patch roofs and scrubbing floors and ceilings.
When original furniture was missing, Lao found used pieces in estate sales and cleaned them up for use at Swannanoa. Broken windows were repaired, the elevator was fixed, and the furnace replaced. If the room lacked furniture, she created pieces by covering packing crates with velvet. And it was Lao who tended to the gardens and removed the brown paint that covered much of the marble, a remnant from Swannanoa’s days as a convent.
Walter’s contributions to Swannanoa came in the form of paintings and sculptures. In addition to his famous works on display throughout the home, Dr. Russell created The Light of the World (colloquially referred to as Christ on the Blue Ridge, pictured), which became the centerpiece of the garden. The Russells and their organization saved Swannanoa from demolition and became its longest residents.
A year after the couple signed the lease, the home was ready for its public reveal. Former governor Colgate Darden was invited to attend the grand re-opening celebration of the estate on May 2nd, 1949.
Dr. Walter Russell spent the last fourteen years of his life at Swannanoa. He died (or “refolded”) at the estate in May of 1963 on his 92nd birthday. After Walter’s death Lao blossomed into her solitary leadership role as Swannanoa’s guiding light. In 1968 she commissioned a survey in advance of her push to have Swannanoa listed on the register of historic landmarks.
Lao was successful in seeing the Swannanoa Palace registered with both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (nomination was signed on June 2nd, 1969 and became official on October 1, 1969), and the Virginia Landmarks Register (#062-0022, added on either 04/28/1969 or 5/16/1978 depending on the source). Interestingly, the nomination form lists the owner as “Mrs. Lao Russell” with “Skyline Swannanoa, Inc.” crossed out.
[ Did You Know? In 1977 the University of Science & Philosophy’s student body numbered 55,000. ]
Lao Russell interview in 1983:
Lao published several books and continued to lead the University of Science and Philosophy out of Swannanoa until her death in 1988.
The school continued to lease Swannanoa for another ten years, paying $5,000 per month while selling $3 tours and $200 home study courses.
Photos of Swannanoa during the USP era:
photos courtesy University of Science & Philosophy
In 1992 Bill and Virginia Edwards, neighbors of Swannanoa for several decades, went public with claims that Swannanoa was owned by the Royal Family of England and had served as the secret meeting place for the Group of 30.
The couple claimed to have seen Ted Kennedy and Jackie O., the Queen of England, Henry Kissinger, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher, among others. Virginia Edwards wrote a book on the subject called “The Conspiracy of 30.”
[ Yes, the Group of 30 is really a thing. Here’s their official website. ]
Swannanoa under the Dulaneys
When the University of Science and Philosophy moved out of Swannanoa in 1998, the third-generation owner initially didn’t have plans for the palatial estate. For a period the home sat vacant. Windows that had been left open to permit airflow also allowed entry of animals, insects, and moisture. Thieves pilfered art and sculptures while vandals destroyed everything from the curtains to the marble.
In 1999 owners Phil and Sandi Dulaney decided to move in and make repairs. Although Swannanoa had been owned by his family for 55 years, Phil was the first Dulaney to actually live in the house. He envisioned converting the palace into a small hotel, which he deemed ideal for hosting conferences and weddings.
But Swannanoa badly needed repairs. From 1999 to 2001 the Dulaneys spent millions replacing doors, windows, and patching marble façade. To repair the roof Phil contacted the original Italian company that sold Dooley the tiles 100 years earlier. Phil had bulletproof glass installed behind the original Tiffany window and all marble surfaces were given a deep clean.
It wasn’t enough. When one item was fixed, another would break. The list of items that needed attention never stopped growing. The Dulaneys were never able to convert the home into a Bed & Breakfast because the electric system was not up to code, and Swannanoa’s plumbing would have to be updated before it could host overnight guests.
Living at Swannanoa year-round proved difficult. Although the home has electricity and running water, there is no air conditioning and it is extremely difficult to heat. Sandi Dulaney admits “the winters are brutal up here.” She points out the Dooleys only lived in the home from May until September – and they had a cadre of servants to clean and run the estate.
Phil and Sandi don’t have servants, and like most folks they’re on the hook for their own cleaning and cooking. Sandi, who works as a librarian, once took a week off just to clean the inside of the home. She tried to keep up with the garden in the beginning but “it was impossible with a full-time job.”
The Dulaneys realized the estate that once required twelve servants to function was more than they could handle. The challenge of maintaining such a residence is significant and should not be underestimated – the mansion is just one of three privately held marble estates over 100 years old in the nation.
“It’s remarkable. You have to have deep pockets to fix up this place. It’s a money pit.”
– Sandi Dulaney
Since the last recession the Dulaneys have been unable to repair and restore the estate, and instead have tried to mothball the building and do what they can to preserve the integrity of its envelope. Recently, Phil’s declining health halted those plans.
Swannanoa is not abandoned, someone is always on the premises. A caretaker stays in the house and resides in one of the rooms upstairs. Speaking of occupants, Phil believes Sallie May might still live in the home. “I have cats… and they won’t go on the third floor.”
“Mrs. Dooley’s ghost inhabits the third floor. I try to stay on her good side.”
– Phil Dulaney
Phil Dulaney takes exception to claims that he doesn’t care about the house. “I love this building, my wife has proof of that. She has a picture of me hugging one of the columns.” Specifically he enjoys the home’s history and its little quirks, such as the fake doors, hidden passageways, and the elevator that hasn’t worked since 1963. In a perfect world Dulaney would restore the palace to its former glory and convert it into a bed and breakfast. But his declining health and poor fortunes in the economy have thwarted any progress.
In the meantime the Dulaneys are trying to keep the estate going. Claims Phil, “I think it’s important to be open. My experience is you don’t want to shut a building down.”
Seasonal guided tours have been available for $6 per person. The money goes toward keeping the doors open and lights on, but doesn’t provide for much else.
photos courtesy Mary Mintz
Not included in the house tour are visits to the rooms filled with old furniture and televisions from the defunct Dulaney hotels on Afton Mountain. The stables have also become a storage facility for the refuse from the former Dulaney businesses at Rockfish Gap. Over the last several years a handful of the old motor court’s buildings have been demolished; before they came down, their files and furniture were moved to Swannanoa.
Considering the estate was not maintained for each of its 104 years, the home itself is in surprisingly good condition. Interior damage is minimal. Faring worse are the overgrown terraced gardens and its partially collapsed pergola. The home’s ornamental balustrade has been knocked down in places (pictured), and the pavement around the home has buckled. Vegetation has been allowed to grow perilously close to the water tower and threatens to uproot it.
Swannanoa’s weathered marble walls could use some attention, mostly neglected since their last cleaning more than fifteen years ago. Fortunately the Tiffany stained glass is intact, however Russell’s Christ of the Blue Ridge statue has disappeared from the garden: A visitor noticed it was missing in October of 2012.
For Swannanoa the most urgent need is to address deterioration and sealing the envelope of the structure. Beyond the financial shortfalls, complicating matters is any work must be performed to a standard of historic site rehabilitation. This increases cost and reduces the list of qualified contractors. Sustainability presents another list of challenges: If the estate is restored, who foots the bill for its ongoing maintenance?
Swannanoa has proven to be immensely popular for weddings and paranormal groups who take turns booking the palace on weekends. Dulaney says that the estate can go from “bridesmaids during the day to ghosts at midnight!” The Russell followers, who call themselves the Center of the One Heart, still make an annual pilgrimage to Swannanoa as a homecoming. In 2016 they plan to spend September 17th & 18th at the palace.
A stroke in the spring of 2015 left Phil Dulaney unable to speak. Today Sandi handles the couple’s affairs, including management and tours of the Swannanoa property.
She feels the Dulaneys are kindred spirits to the Dooleys. Sandi jokes with visitors the letter “D” carved into the wood above the fireplace stands for Dulaney, “but it’s really for Dooley.”
photos courtesy Mary Mintz
497 Swannanoa Lane, Afton, VA 22920