Seated atop Afton Mountain, Swannanoa stands as a beautiful testament of love from a husband to his wife. The palace is a majestic Italian Renaissance Revival villa, modeled after buildings in the Villa Medici in Rome. Swannanoa sits at the end of a long winding drive, and and as she comes into view, she immediately commands your attention. The palace stands grandly, greeting visitors with her beautiful marble exterior. Sitting at the southern edge of the Skyline Drive and the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is very easy to see why this spot was chose for Swannanoa.
James H. Dooley and Sarah (Sallie) O. May were married on 11 September 1869, in nearby Staunton, Virginia. James and Sallie would go on to make Richmond, Virginia their home, building their main residence, Maymont, in 1893. Swannanoa, built in 1912, would become the Dooley’s summer retreat to escape the Richmond heat.
The Dooley’s were one of the affluent couples in Richmond, largely due to James’s business acumen. After the Civil War, Richmond real estate was on rise in an attempt to rebuild the capital city, and Dooley smartly invested in several different ventures. Dooley became part of various industries besides real estate, including: the railroad, banking, and steel. The Dooley’s never had children, but they were active in many different organizations and donated large sums of money to various charities throughout their lives.
Swannanoa Sans Dooley
After the death of James, and then Sallie Dooley, the fate of their residences, Maymont and Swannanoa, followed two very different paths. Maymont was left to the city of Richmond; but Swannanoa was left to private ownership. Swannanoa passed through several different hands, as well as different types of uses. The most recent owners have attempted to restore Swannanoa to her former glory; a massive undertaking since she had been neglected for so many years. Maintenance and restoration costs of this size are quite expensive, but fortunately, the current owners have opened the palace for tours and special events. It is easy to imagine what Swannanoa looked like in her heyday; especially if you have visited Maymont. There is still evidence of her beauty all around the palace.
Labor of Love
I have visited many large Gilded Age mansions and there are usually beautiful paintings of the Lady of the House, sometimes there is a bust or two; but, there is nothing like what is at Swannanoa. It is quite evident that James loved his wife immensely; from the decorative Swans around the palace to the painting of Sallie on the dome above the staircase. But in case you needed a little more convincing, you only need to step through the front door.
As you enter the doorway, your eyes are immediately drawn up the grand staircase to an immense stained glass window. The Tiffany window, which bears Sallie’s likeness, has over 4,000 pieces and is believed to be the largest Tiffany in a private residence in the United States.
As I wandered about the palace, I was simultaneously in awe of the elegance that was still very visible, and the beautiful way that the natural decay had set in. It was obvious that the palace had been left to its own devices for several years; there were several areas that were off limits to visitors, and the lingering smell of standing water wafted through the air; but even with that, it was not enough to take away from grandness of the palace.
There are still many of the original details throughout the palace: the carvings in the library are beautiful, the ceilings in the dining room are gorgeous, and the large marble fireplaces are stunning! But, there were 2 rooms that held my attention for a significant amount of time: the Smoking Room and the Breakfast Room.
The Smoking Room
Most Gilded Age mansions had separate rooms for women to gather and for men to gather. The Smoking Room at Swannanoa has mostly remained exactly as it was when James Dooley occupied the room. The beautiful carvings and the inlaid decoration in the wood panels is extraordinary. It is easy to forget that the room is not very large because the amount of detail is insane. Everywhere you look in the room, there is another beautiful detail. I took more photos in this room than any other room in the palace. You can see some of the other photos on my Instagram @ImAlwaysAdventuring.
When I wandered into the breakfast room I was struck by how beautiful the room was. Although it was devoid of any decor or furniture, the natural beauty in the room was stunning. The windows allow a beautiful view of the grounds and create a wonderful breeze. Aside from the physical beauty of the room, I felt very relaxed and at ease in the breakfast room. It was easy to imagine Sallie sitting in the room, enjoying some fresh fruit or a glass of juice while breathing in the fresh mountain air. If I hadn’t been excited to explore the gardens, I could’ve pulled up a chair and stared out the windows for hours.
The gardens at Swannanoa are very similar to the gardens at Maymont, although not as expansive as the Maymont gardens. A beautiful fountain sits at the base of the multi-level Italian-style gardens. It is easy to imagine how beautiful the gardens were at their prime; how peaceful it must have been to sit and read a book near the fountain. Although the large fountain is currently not functioning, its beauty is still very evident.
The long pergola at the top of the gardens has an alcove at either end with one almost completely reclaimed by Mother Nature. It is actually a really beautiful representation of urban decay. The original geometric design of the garden is still evident, although the flowerbeds are sparse. There is something hauntingly beautiful about the gardens at Swannanoa; it gives you the opportunity to see how powerful nature is. If left untended, nature reclaims.
There are so many other things, so much more at Swannanoa that is best seen with your own eyes. Hopefully the owners will be able to continue raising money to restore the beautiful palace to her former glory. I highly recommend taking the time to visit Swannanoa, it gives you a peek at the restoration process and how much actually goes into the upkeep. Be sure to check their Facebook page for their schedule. Also, be on the lookout for my Swannanoa video, I hope to have it finished soon! As always, thank you for following along on my adventures!
Until the next Adventure,