Sitting atop a Virginia hill is what seems to be an Italianate palace plucked right from Europe and dropped down in the states, but this lovely mansion is actually an original construction, created as a token of love and devotion between a husband and wife.
The estate that would come to be known as Swannanoa was first built in 1912 by railroad millionaire James H. Dooley. He purchased 1,000 acres of land to build his grand manse and styled it after the historic buildings of Rome. The tall facade features two tower-like structures attached to the front, decked out in elaborate columns and moulding. Word was that Dooley had built the ornate mansion to honor his wife, Sallie O. May and this would seem to be evident in the ten-foot Tiffany & Co. stained-glass image of her that was installed above the main stairs.
In addition to the main, 52-room house, the grounds were dotted with fountains, gardens, towers, and staff housing. Once completed, it served as a Virginia summer home for the couple while they were alive. (The Dooleys’ principal residence was Maymont in Richmond, which still survives today along with its vast acreage that contains a dairy, a zoo, Japanese and other extensive gardens.)
When they passed away, the house fell into disrepair for a time until it the grounds became a country club, during which time, Calvin Coolidge dined there. Later, it was leased in 1948 by Walter and Lao Russell, who were scientists, cosmologists, spiritualists, artists and, luckily, renovators who were looking for a spiritual and beautiful place. They established the University of Science and Philosophy at Swannanoa and used the house as a museum and repository for all of Walter Russell’s writings, books, art works, and scientific charts. Walter Russell died in 1963, but his much younger wife continued living there until her death in 1988. The house fell into disrepair, and became the lovely historic site it is today.
Currently, the mansion and grounds are protected as a historic landmark, and are mainly used for weddings and fancy private events. The main mansion house looks as glorious as it ever did, making it the perfect place for love to bloom, just like it did when the mansion was built.
Know Before You Go
It is atop the mountain at Afton, VA next to the Blue Ridge parkway, Skyline Drive, where interstate 64 crosses the Blue Ridge from east to west. The road to the house is marked with "no trespassing" signs, and you cannot see the house from the road through the trees, so you must plan your visit on one of the select weekend open house dates to see anything. Be sure to pay for the guided tour, as it is given by the current owner of the house (and has been for the past 20 years) as she tries little by little to restore the house to its former glory.