Only a handful of people may lay claim to owning or living at Swannanoa Palace near the Blue Ridge Parkway, atop Afton Mountain. But the building Swannanoa Palace itself, and its magical mountaintop location, has likely touched the lives of thousands. Anyone visiting Swannanoa Palace for the first time, will almost immediately sense its specialness, even without the history lesson. But the history of Swannanoa Palace is interesting, if not also important.
As explained in “What’s so special about Swannanoa near the Blue Ridge Parkway?”, Swannanoa Palace was built by James Dooley for his wife Sally May as a summer home, back in the early 1900s. The Dooley’s spent summers at Swannanoa Palace from 1912 or 1913 until their deaths about a decade later (James Dooley in 1922 and Sally May in 1925.) Although a glorious home, in the beginning, Swannanoa Palace stood empty more often than it actually had inhabitants. Fewer details can be located about Swannanoa Palace from 1925 to 1948, at which time Swannanoa Palace took on its next live-in couple, Walter and Lao Russell.
However, according to posts on topix.com the following ownership details come to light:
- When Sally May Dooley passed, James Dooley’s sisters inherited Swannanoa Palace.
- Furnishings were bequeathed to the City of Richmond, and put on display at Maymont, as well as certain items passing down to other family members. Some items were auctioned off.
- In July 1926, Swannanoa Palace estate became Swannanoa Country Club belonging to Valley Corporation of Richmond, adding an 18-hole golf course.
- In 1928, Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent Thanksgiving at the property
- After the Great Depression, the Swannanoa Country Club closed in 1930.
- The property lay uninhabited until 1945 when 12 Charlottesville businessmen bought the property under the Skyline-Swannanoa Corporation.
- In 1948 Walter and Lao Russell leased the house and grounds from Skyline-Swannanoa Corporation to house the University of Science and Philosophy.
- Russell Walter passed in 1963. Lao lived on the property until her passing in 1989.
The famous 1928 Presidential visit of Calvin Coolidge is documented in an article on crackerpilgrim.com. Around the holidays of 1928, President Coolidge visited and hunted at the Swannanoa Country Club. Another trivia fact about Swannanoa Palace can be found according to a nearby bed and breakfast, the Iris Inn, which states that Swannanoa had a fine “moonshine distillery” reputation during the same Swannanoa Country Cub years (1929- 1932). Little else can be found on the internet regarding this period of Swannanoa Palace’s history. Another interesting and full history, with differing dates can be found in a PDF of the Waynesboro Public Library system.
Swannanoa Palace remained empty through the Great Depression and World War II, although at one point in 1942, there are rumors that the U.S. Navy was interested in the property. In the end, in 1942 A.T. Dulaney formed Skyline-Swannanoa Corporation, and that group of investors came into possession of the mountain top estate.
Walter and Lao Russell took up residence at Swannanoa Palace in 1948 (dates from Wikipedia and News Leader). The Russells lived at Swannanoa Palace (1948-1989) until Walter passed in 1963, and Lao passed in 1989. Between 1948 and 1989, the Russells leased and lived on the mountaintop property. In 1949 the Russells founded their school about self-transcendence which they called the “The University of the Science of Man.” The Russells school of philosophy, now known as the University of Science and Philosophy vacated the Swannanoa Palace premises in 1999, but continues to support and spread the teachings of the Russells.
According to a News Leader article, Phil Dulaney, grandson of A.T. Dulaney, purchased Swannanoa Palace in 1998, and remains as the current owner. Briefly for a time in the early 2000s Dulaney and his wife Sandi lived on the Swannanoa Palace property. Currently a caretaker lives on premises. While everyone agrees that renovations are sorely needed, the deep funding required has not yet been sourced.
A focal point for many, Swannanoa Palace has played a significant role during its 100-plus years of existence. While Swannanoa Palace did not make the military cut, it did briefly incarnate as a country club. And although Swannanoa Palace has only been house and home to two families–the Dooley’s and the Russells—many more people know its name and its grandeur. There are many tales of interesting experiences, and even paranormal experiences at the marble palace atop Afton called Swannanoa Palace. Swannanoa Palace Open Houses are scheduled during select weekends throughout the year, usually starting in May for a nominal fee. During open houses, author Arisun Wonderli is usually present selling her booke of detailed history on Swannanoa, entitled “Swannanoa Palace: A Pictorial History—Its Past and People,” (also available on Amazon). Why not plan a visit today? For more information, call 540.942.5201.