The Blue Ridge Palace of Love and Good Vibrations.
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Fireplace with Carrara marble embellishments.
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Completed in 1913, Swannanoa was, for many years, home to the University of Science and Philosophy.
So the story goes, the penniless Confederate soldier, so badly wounded early in the war that he was relegated to the ordnance department in Staunton, met a young belle from an old Virginia family. They picnicked on Afton Mountain where the young woman could gaze over Piedmont and Valley. The soldier said he would build her a house there. Despite the objections of the belle’s Episcopal parents that the young man was Irish Catholic, she married him in the home of her sister in Staunton four years after the war ended.
If the story about the young lovers is true, 40 years later the former Confederate began living up to his promise. At the top of the Blue Ridge, straddling Augusta and Nelson counties, multimillionaire James Dooley described his vision of a summer home for his wife, the former Sallie May. It would become perhaps the most expensive and elaborate home in the state, employing 300 craftsmen over two years. (Construction ended in 1913.) Sallie, depicted among flowers in a 4,000-piece Tiffany window above the grand marble staircase, loved swans because they mated for life. So the Dooleys called the home Swannanoa, and despite its passing from the Dooley family in the 1920s, the home still stands tall on Afton Mountain, having coursed a history as rare, even as bizarre, as its inception.
James Dooley was second generation Irish. His father and mother immigrated in the 1830s and settled in Richmond. James studied—very ably—at Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., receiving an A.B. degree just before war broke out in 1861. In August, at age 20, he volunteered for the Confederate Army and was assigned to Company C, First Virginia Regiment. He served as a private until he was shot in the right wrist during the May 1862 Battle of Williamsburg. With a partly incapacitated forearm, he was then made a lieutenant in the ordnance department in Staunton.
After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Dooley returned to Georgetown to study for a master’s degree, then began to read law with prominent Richmond lawyers William Green and Charles Crane. Though Richmond was practically prostrate in those years, it was fertile ground for a young man with energy, ambition and brains. By 1870, Dooley had set his sights on the legislature and was elected a delegate.
Dooley was particularly interested in transportation and real estate. Leaving his work as a politician, he took up railroading. If you were good at it in the Gilded Age, railroading was very profitable, and “Major” Dooley, as Richmonders tended to call him by then— although he had never achieved that rank—was very good at it. By 1886, he was a millionaire and president of the Richmond & Danville Railroad. With Sallie, he bought land west of the city, then built an estate and mansion there called Maymont in Sallie’s honor. In 1899, Dooley retired from the law and finally devoted some time to his old promise to his wife to build a home on beautiful Afton Mountain.
What he had in mind for the Dooley “summer home” was modeled on Rome’s 16th-century Villa Medici. Little expense was to be spared. The Dooleys hired Richmond architects Baskerville & Noland who toiled over the project for eight years. Stone cutters, wood carvers, plasterers and more set tons of white Georgia marble cut for the Italianate-style mansion and embellished the rooms. Mules hauled heavy stonework up the mountain grade and terraced gardens were built, all to the tune of about $2 million. (Some plumbing fixtures were gold.) Carrara marble, teakwood paneling, coffered ceilings and a grand marble stairway graced the interior. The Tiffany window cost $100,000 (a stonecutter then made about $1,200 a year) and is the image of St. Cecilia in a garden, though many would say the saint has Sallie’s face.
By the time the mansion was completed in 1913, the Dooleys were advanced in years. James died in 1924, leaving $3 million to St. Joseph’s Orphanage (now St. Joseph’s Villa) in Richmond. Sallie died in 1926, leaving Maymont to the City of Richmond and $500,000 to the Richmond Public Library. The Dooleys were childless, so Sallie willed Swannanoa to her deceased husband’s two sisters.
The sisters sold Swannanoa almost immediately for $300,000 cash to a consortium of successful businessmen called the Valley Corporation, which planned to use the mansion as the centerpiece for a country club. They built a fine 18-hole golf course. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge visited over Thanksgiving week and was much taken with the place. He asked Congress to purchase the mansion as a summer home for U. S. presidents; the Congress refused by two votes. The Valley Corporation sank $500,000 into creating the country club and opened it in 1929.
Their timing, of course, could not have been worse. The Depression skewered disposable income. The Valley Corporation sold the property back to the shareholders over a period of years beginning in 1932, recouping just $125,000. Swannanoa then began a string of years of sitting empty. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy considered buying it to house notable prisoners of war whose rooms would be secretly wired with listening devices. But, fearful that Congress again would object, the Navy gave that job instead to Fort Hunt, a spartan camp near George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Swannanoa’s unused years stretched well into World War II. Then, in 1944, a consortium called Skyline Swannanoa, led by Charlottesville businessman A. T. Dulaney, bought the place for $60,100. (It was, by that time, in a state of some decrepitude.) Dulaney gave tours beginning that year, with vague notions of development in his mind. Though he was then unaware, the marble mansion was about to be subsumed in “Universal Law.”
Perhaps mysterious cosmic oddity attracts cosmic oddity. In any event, in 1948, up to Swannanoa drove polymath Walter Russell and his new English wife, Daisy Cook Stebbins, who were looking for a home for Russell’s art and cosmic consciousness center. Russell, then 77, emerged from the car and walked toward the mansion, but Daisy, then 44, turned toward the view of the valley below. It was, she related later, what she had “seen” two years before, just after an “out-of-body” experience in which she “pulsed with God’s electric universe.” During that mystic event, she envisioned herself on a mountaintop looking down on a beautiful valley “with a glorious figure of Christ behind me, his hands on my shoulders.” That was enough persuasion for Russell, and the couple began negotiating for Swannanoa.
The purchase price was too high, but they could afford a lease, and they began at once to set up the Walter Russell Foundation, which later changed its name to the University of Science and Philosophy. Swannanoa was the home of Russell’s New Age nexus for the next 50 years.
Russell himself was notorious. Having left school at age nine in 1880, he educated himself, and in 1926 predicted the existence of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen), which was not detected until 1931, as well as the element plutonium. In addition, he was a notable sculptor, artist, author and lecturer. He was a friend of Thomas Watson Sr., founder of IBM, and was admired by electromagnetism innovator Nikola Tesla. Daisy, too, was a marvel. Born to a middle class English family, she created the country’s largest mail-order beauty business in the 1920s. Her products included bust enhancement creams, and pills called Slimettes for losing weight. The federal government shut down her extension into the U.S. in the 1930s for unsubstantiated advertising claims. She then took increasingly to spiritual reading. When she met Walter Russell in 1946, she told him she had met “her soul mate.” They wed in 1948 and went in search of a spiritual home, which they found in the Italianate marble palace beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Together Walter Russell and Daisy—who had changed her name to Lao in honor of Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text on Taoism—created their Course in Cosmic Consciousness—a home study regimen of books and articles they wrote. “The Law of Love is a rhythmic, balanced interchange between all things,” Russell had penned in 1926 in one of his books called The Universal One, which is emblematic of his creed. The Russells erected a statue of Jesus in the garden and, in celebration of refurbishing the mansion, former Governor Colgate Darden helped the Russells reopen Swannanoa in 1949. Adherents from around the world—including Gloria Swanson in the 1950s—took the Cosmic Consciousness course and visited the marble mansion. Born of love in the Civil War, Swannanoa was now a locus of love for the whole world.
Though Russell died in 1963, Lao kept renewing the lease on Swannanoa and wrote her own New Age books: Love, and God Works with You but Not for You. Admirers and acolytes made pilgrimages to the mountain: John Denver, Dennis Weaver, Shirley MacLaine, Art Linkletter, Eddie Albert and more visited as Lao soldiered on through the hippie era in the 1970s, and then the Reagan years. She blossomed into the mistress of Swannanoa, the smiling, cheerful advocate of love and harmony who guided visitors through the marble halls, one step ahead of faltering mortar joints and leaking roofs. She died at age 84 in 1988, the day after a massive solar flare: Followers would have said her passing was linked to a cosmic event.
Later that year, the University of Science and Philosophy moved out. Love and cosmic consciousness cannot hold mortar joints, and the grand old dame requires massive repairs, which likely will take years. Today the Dulaney family again is custodian of the towered Italianate manse. They plan to make it a center for conferences and events, and a bed and breakfast, and they hold open houses several times a year. Head held high on its mountaintop, Swannanoa glides like the swan she is into the future. •