If spirits roam the earth mourning unfinished business and unsolved crimes, then their appearance at Swannanoa is to be expected. Indeed, upon a recent visit, the mansion rendered a sad tale and evidence of a spirit that still lingers.
The 52-room mansion is a tribute to love. Atop Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia, James Dooley wooed Sarah (“Sallie”) O. May, a descendant of several old Virginia families. Dooley, a Confederate soldier, was on assignment to the ordnance division at nearby Staunton, Virginia, where Sallie May spent time visiting her sisters. The couple married in 1869, making Richmond, Virginia their primary residence.
Richmonders will recognize the Dooley name. The couple acquired property along the James River and created Maymont, a grand estate house and extensive distinctive gardens, planned and maintained in part by Mrs. Dooley herself. “Major” Dooley became a successful businessman, helping to rebuild Richmond and the South after the Civil War through railroads, land development, banking, and steel. He and Sally were also active philanthropists, supporting Richmond’s St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Crippled Children’s Hospital, public education, and other local charities.
In 1911, Major Dooley purchased 1,000 acres of land on Afton Mountain, overlooking the Shenandoah and Rockfish valleys. Where the courting couple had picnicked became their new summer home, a grand estate house modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome. Marble was shipped in to create a dazzling white exterior of Georgia marble and a stunning rich interior of Italian Carrera marble.
Ornate details abound, created by more than 300 artisans, from the embossed metal figures on the front door panels, marble and parquet floors, carved woodwork and decorative lighting fixtures, mosaics and paneled ceilings. Each fireplace on the first floor is distinctive and ornate. The rooms have hidden doors, some of which reportedly cover entrances to hidden passageways. Like many mansions of the times, each room has a different architectural theme, including the Louis XVI music room and a Turkish office with incense chandelier and mosaic mantle. Two towers rise at the front corners of the house, both offering expansive views of the mountains and valleys.
Most notable to visitors who are moved by the spirit of the place are the tributes to Sallie May Dooley. The large, 4,000-piece Tiffany stained glass window above the grand staircase is of Sallie in her colorful garden in bloom, with the Blue Ridge Mountains behind. Sallie’s likeness is also on the domed ceiling, pulled along in a wheeled chariot-or is it a wheelchair? The mistress of the house had a passion for swans, as evidenced in Maymont’s unique swan bed, and swans appear throughout the Afton Mountain mansion. Perhaps the name of the estate is also a tribute to the beloved: though “swannanoa” is reportedly of Native American derivative, either Cherokee for “beautiful river” or anglicizing of the names for the tribes Shawano or Shawnee, perhaps the Dooleys appreciated its unintended reference to the majestic birds.
The Swannanoa gardens, though not as elaborate as Maymont, also received Mrs. Dooley’s attention. The terraced Italianate design melds well with the style of the house.
Sallie May Dooley died at Swannanoa on September 5, 1925, at the age of 79. If she still roams the mansion, she has seen the tribute to love slowly deteriorate from its grand beauty. Upon Mrs. Dooley’s death, Swannanoa went to Major Dooley’s sisters, who promptly sold it. What happened in later years is a crime, though no statutes would hold anyone accountable.
Major Dooley had bequeathed Maymont to the City of Richmond and the buildings and grounds are still sparkling and grand, maintained with devotion and open to visitors. Swannanoa’s degradation is as apparent as the glory of the city estate. The Afton Mountain mansion has housed a business and some residents, but it’s also reputedly been trampled by wandering cows and given shelter to careless campers.
One can’t help but wonder if Sallie May Dooley has also been haunted by the philosophies that filled the house during the tenure of Walter and Lao Russell, who held a lease on the property from 1949 to 1998. From the house, they promoted the University of Science and Philosophy and espoused their unconventional New Age theories, light years from the life of the Dooley’s Gilded Age. The couple hung Walter Russell’s paintings and scattered his statues throughout the house. A local architect and writer, Robert Boucheron, reports visiting Swannanoa and hearing Lao Russell’s lecture to a “throng of acolytes.”
“She calmly predicted that the island of Great Britain would soon tilt up on its western coast in a geological catastrophe,” recalled Boucheron, “and slide beneath the North Sea, like a tea tray.”
The Russells’ alleged penchant for art and high-flying ideas is degraded by the lack of attention they gave the stately home. During their tenure, Swannanoa suffered severe neglect, manifested in roof leaks, cracked plaster, and the general musty aura of building abuse.
The mansion’s current owners express a desire to return the Virginia landmark to its former glory. According to the property’s brochure, James F. Dulaney, Jr., under the name Skyline Swannanoa, Inc., has done renovations on the roof and extensive exterior and interior work, with plans to convert it to a bed and breakfast and executive conference center. There is, however, still extensive work to be done.
Intentions, however, are not reality. The nearby Afton Mountain abandoned restaurant and hotel, under the same ownership, have been sitting vacant for years, crumbling promises on a once bustling and successful site. If developed, these could once more provide local revenue as well as traveler conveniences and stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
The story of Swannanoa is a century of contrasts, currently engendering a mixture of admiration and sadness. A visitor may be as stunned by the disrepair as by the remarkable architectural details. Columns have fallen and marble slabs droop as with fatigue and depression. Paint has chipped from walls and ceilings and silk wallpaper hangs in tatters and threads. Junk fills the servant stairwells, emitting the smell of musty old books and deterioration.
Is Sallie May Dooley haunted by the state of the grand home her devoted husband built for her? Does she wander the rooms grieving the disrepair and follow the visitors who witness its degradation? Or is there another story here, perhaps of a servant who once worked the estate, or of Walter or Lao Russell, still looking for followers to listen to their philosophies? Upon our visit, cameras caught images that seem to be orbs, traveling among the once-grand rooms of the first floor. We did not feel any hostility or antipathy-but perhaps that’s only because we were already overwhelmed by our mixed emotions in the crumbling grandeur.
Swannanoa Palace is open to visitors with limited hours and no tour guides, averaging two weekends per month, at $6 per person (under 12 free). Whatever your views on wandering spirits, you will be haunted by this tarnished treasure.