Swannanoa Palace

After our visit to the Charlottesville Southern Living Showcase Home on Sunday, my family also headed up Afton Mountain to explore Swannanoa Palace, at which there are several open houses being held this summer.

2013-06-02 13.47.40I was excited when I learned about the summer open house schedule, because my dad first told me about Swannanoa a few months ago, when he was interested in buying a house that had come on the market on the nearby golf course. I was really surprised to learn about a secret palace sitting on top of the mountain that I’ve driven past no less than 50 times in my life. As it turns out, there’s not much information to be found about Swannanoa on the internet, which made it even more secretive and appealing to me! (The wikipedia article is pretty good, if anyone is interested.)

Swannanoa was built by Major James Dooley, an executive with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company (who also owned the Maymont estate in Richmond), as a token of love for his wife, Sally May. Swannanoa is a 52-room, 23,000+ square foot marble palace that was built for $2 million in 1912.

More than 300 artisans were hired to create the palace as a replica of the Villa de Medici in Rome, and it’s constructed with white Georgia marble on the exterior and Italian Carrera marble on the interior. At the top of the first-floor staircase at the center of the entrance hall is a 4,000 piece Tiffany stained-glass window bearing the likeness of Mrs. Dooley, capped with a domed ceiling mural. The name Swannanoa comes from Mrs. Dooley’s fondness for swans, which she liked because they choose their mates for a lifetime.

2013-06-02 12.46.05It was hard to get a picture of both the staircase and the stained glass because it was so dark inside, so above is the staircase and below is the window.

2013-06-02 12.53.25It’s hard to precisely trace the occupancy of the palace, but it’s been sitting empty since roughly the late 1990’s. Apparently some renovations were done beginning in 1999, but the palace has really begun to fall apart. Notice how the silk is shredding off the wall in the photo below? Some rooms on the main floor are still in decent condition, but most of the rooms upstairs have fallen into disrepair.

2013-06-02 12.49.04Here’s the dining room, which I think captures the magnificence of the hand-carved woodwork. It was just all so ornate and extravagant.

2013-06-02 12.46.41

2013-06-02 12.46.54None of the 8 bedrooms in the home are open to the public, so the tour really consists of the main level, staircases, some upstairs hallways, and one of the two towers. I have to admit that I had a jolt of terror when I made it about halfway up the staircase between the 3rd and 4th floors, because it was creaky and old and I felt unsafe being up so high.

2013-06-02 12.58.22When we reached the top level, we really got to see the extent of work that needs to be done to bring this house back to life.

2013-06-02 12.59.522013-06-02 13.02.19However, there are also some cool original architectural elements that are still around, like the antique doorknobs and the original fuse box.

2013-06-02 13.01.14

5592_1897510848507_1720294949_nOnce we had made it up to the tower, we got to see exactly why the Dooleys had built a palace in such an inaccessible place. The view!

2013-06-02 13.03.30We headed back downstairs, where I was tickled to find that the original blueprints were on display! They were laying out on a table for anyone to touch and sift through. So, so cool. I wanted to steal them and frame them!

2013-06-02 13.21.57Also after revisiting the first floor, I discovered a room I had missed the first time around! It was probably my favorite.

2013-06-02 13.13.33After finishing up inside of the house, we headed out to explore the rear gardens. Here’s a historical photo that shows what it used to look like:

2013-06-02 13.15.45But this is what it looks like today, looking toward the house from the highest terrace of the garden:

2013-06-02 13.34.17And this is looking up to the highest terrace:

2013-06-02 13.31.13All in all, it was a neat escape into a long-gone century, and a fun afternoon activity. The house smelled like mold and old age, but it appealed to everyone from my grandma, my dad, my sister, to me. We all found something that we liked.

2013-06-02 13.44.53(I guess I liked standing outside and pretending it was my palace!)

The pamphlet I got when I walked in said that “the future plans for the palace are to be a bed and breakfast hotel and executive conference center,” so maybe one day it’ll be brought back to its original grandeur! For now, though, there are stinkbugs in all the windows and a dead bird on the front porch… Kind of a monument to things that have long been forgotten. But how neat would it be if it could be restored into a B&B? Imagine all the weddings that would happen here!


10 thoughts on “Swannanoa Palace

  1. ninamholland says:

    Swannanoa Place looks gorgeous! I love old mansions that have a “creepy” factor to them…does that make sense?
    This place reminds me a lot of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s an incredible home and it’s crazy to think that it was at one time a private residence! I would highly recommend a day trip 🙂


    • orples says:

      There are rumors that Swannanoa is haunted. Google it. There’s lots of information on the internet about this lovely old mansion. Also, google Maymont Park (Richmond, Virginia)… the Dooly’s winter home, built in the 1890’s. Both Estates are worth visiting.

  2. orples says:

    I visited Swannanoh in the 1980’s when Lao Russel was still there. I actually met her. She was old, and wheelchair bound, but still smiling. I considered it an honor to meet her.

    Even then, Swannanoh was crumbing. It’s heartbreaking, really, especially for those of us familiar with Maymont, the Dooley’s winter home in Richmond, Virginia.

    Maymont was willed to the city of Richmond and is opened to the public. Some tours and events carry fees to help pay for the parks upkeep. There are also some very generous private donors who have helped maintain Maymont’s glory. There are adopt an animal programs, etc. to bring in the necessary monies required for upkeep.

    If you love one Estate, you’ll love the other.

    It sad that Swannanoh hasn’t been given the attention Maymont has enjoyed over the years. Perhaps one day Swannanoh will fall into the right hands and the mansion will be restored to his original magnificence.

  3. Spartan80 says:

    The current owner (or rather, the head of the consortium of owners) has been talking about turning this place into a B&B/conference center for over a decade now. It’s never gonna happen. Word is, he doesn’t want to play by the government’s rules in restoring the mansion, so he’s letting it rot. I suspect there are other problems, of a severe financial nature, besides his obstinance. He also owns the Afton Inn below the palace, as well as several other buildings on the mountain; all are derelict. Apparently, he is severely cash-strapped, and unable or unwilling to see any plans through to fruition, for whatever reasons. So, what could be an absolute gem – a smaller-scale Biltmore – that draws people from around the country sits there, falling to pieces. It’s a travesty. Someone should step in, and do something to save Swannanoa – before it goes the way of its original owners.

    • AdventuringAtHome says:

      How interesting. We also noticed that the Afton Inn was falling apart on our drives in and out. It’s a shame that it’s fallen into such disrepair. It seems like it would take millions to properly restore and update it at this point; my feeling while there was that I was surrounded by a hundred years’ worth of mold.

  4. A. W. says:

    Hello…….Just saw this posting; Thought I’d give an update. There is a new book out on the history of Swannanoa Palace; I am the author. Come up to the Palace after this weekend for Open Hse., every weekend until first Nov. weekend. If you’re interested, you may buy books. 292 page book with glossy photos, many never before seen

      • Catherine Driver says:

        What is happening lately at Swannanoa? I visited years ago and did meet Lao. Just rediscovered some of her and Walter’s books. I’d love to read your book. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Is Michael P. Hudac still alive?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s