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Swannanoa: A 109- Year-Old Valentine

January/February 2022

One in a series of holiday-inspired destinations in co-op country.

PHOTO BY GREGG MACDONALD

Swannanoa: A 109- Year-Old Valentine

Luxury and love on the Blue Ridge

February is the time of year when many of us start to think about what gift to get that special someone — we may be thinking of flowers, a nice dinner or perhaps a piece of thoughtful jewelry.

Whatever the decision, it likely won’t match what railroad baron James Dooley gave his wife in 1912. His gift, a 23,000- square-foot Italian Renaissance Revival Villa, complete with its own coal-powered, electricity-producing plant, in what is today Afton, Va., in Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative territory.

Named Swannanoa (a word meaning “beautiful trails” in the language of the Cherokee Nation), the lavish 109-year-old home remains the ultimate valentine.

PHOTO COURTESY GENE RUNION

The son of Irish immigrants, James Henry Dooley deftly invested in real estate, railroads, insurance, steel and banking futures, and served on the boards of at least two railroads, as well as serving for a time in the Virginia General Assembly.

On Sept. 11, 1869, Dooley married Sallie O. May, the daughter of Henry May, a physician from Petersburg. The Dooleys’ primary residence was soon established in Richmond on the property today known as the Maymont Estate.

In 1911, Dooley purchased 763 acres from J.B. Yount, a local farmer, on Afton Mountain, with plans for a summer home — a gift for his wife.

Reportedly, Dooley wrote to a lawyer negotiating the sale that his wife wanted the land, he had the money for the land and therefore they should own it. After a lot of prodding and financial outlay, he made his wife’s dream a reality.

PHOTO COURTESY BILL SHAW

EXTRAVAGANT CONSTRUCTION

During construction, train cars laden with imported Italian and native Georgian marble rolled into what is now Crozet. Teams of oxen-drawn wagons transported these special materials up Afton Mountain to the future site of Swannanoa, where master craftsmen would take eight years to complete this labor of love.

Each stone, embellishment and work of art reflected love; the love of a husband for his wife, as well as the love of those master craftsmen for their respective crafts.

Artisans constructed the home’s exterior from Georgian marble and the interior from imported Italian marble. Walking into the home, you see a sweeping staircase topped by a breathtaking 4,000- piece Tiffany stained-glass window portraying Sallie May Dooley.

PHOTO COURTESY GERRY BISHOP

“Facing west, the sun sets behind Ms.Dooley’s likeness each day. It remains the largest Tiffany stained-glass window in any privately owned home in America,” says Adrianne Boyer, Swannanoa marketing and events director assistant.

SIGHTS TO SEE

While the home does not contain many period furnishings, it does contain several historical treasures. In the ladies’ music room is a fireplace carved by famed Italian sculptor Rafaello Romanelli, graced with musical notes from an unknown song.

Nearby, visitors often take note of the smoking room, known also as the Persian room, because of its Moroccan light fixture and mosaic tile fireplace with a North African insert within the fireplace.

Look above in the dining room to admire a spectacular coffered ceiling (a coffer in architecture is a series of sunken panels in the shape of a square, rectangle or octagon in a ceiling or vault). A series of carved cherubs grace the home’s interior, representing love and fertility. Ironically, the Dooleys had no children.

The couple remained married until Dooley’s death from a stroke in 1922, more than 50 years after their wedding day. After several years in which she relied on a wheelchair, Sallie died in 1925 and left the property to her husband’s two sisters.

In 1926, the sisters sold the property to the Valley Corporation of Richmond, which opened the Swannanoa Country Club and Golf Course. The country club went bankrupt in 1929, and the property laid largely abandoned until 1944 when A.T. Dulaney formed Skyline Swannanoa Inc.

PHOTO BY GREGG MACDONALD

Today, the property is still owned by a Dulaney — James F. Dulaney Jr. His wife, Sandi Dulaney, together with Boyer, now leads efforts to restore the home. Mrs. Dulaney says of the home: “There’s still much life and love here.”

In fitting homage to its origins, the home is today a sought-after wedding and romantic special events photography venue. Private tours are available by appointment only.

For more information, contact Swannanoa on Facebook or by email at [email protected].

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