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.
I 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.
It 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.
It’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.
Here’s the dining room, which I think captures the magnificence of the hand-carved woodwork. It was just all so ornate and extravagant.
None 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.
When 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.
However, there are also some cool original architectural elements that are still around, like the antique doorknobs and the original fuse box.
Once 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!
We 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!
Also after revisiting the first floor, I discovered a room I had missed the first time around! It was probably my favorite.
After 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:
But this is what it looks like today, looking toward the house from the highest terrace of the garden:
And this is looking up to the highest terrace:
All 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.
(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!