If you had $2 million to spare what would you do?
James Dooley, Irish immigrant, lawyer, financier and VA house representative in the Senate at the end of 19th century, built a mansion for his beloved wife Sallie May Dooley, completing it by 1913.
This was to be their summer home, away from the humidity and chaos of Richmond where their year-round residence, Maymont, was located.
He is not the first man to do so and hopefully, he won’t be the last, since this (not so) little Italian Renaissance style villa is a gem and so worth the visit if you are ever in the area.
And so, it was in the late afternoon hours on a crisp November day last year that I slowly made my way onto a narrow graveled path up to the top of the Afton mountain. It overlooks both the Shenandoah Valley and the Rockfish Gap in Nelson county and this is where the mansion is located.
I have been wanting to visit the place for quite a while and it did not disappoint.
It was charming, slightly un-kept, with the patina of time slowly seeping into its walls, marbled steps, and what once must have been, expansive and well maintained gardens.
The mansion is a perfect example of the golden age era with its opulence, uninhibited extravagance and European inspired decor and artifacts.
Swannanoa is currently closed to the general public but you can book private tours, photo shoots for weddings and other occasions upon request. See a full list here.
Just like Maymont, the property had state-of-the-art fixtures for the time with electricity and plumbing installed in the house, its own power plant on the property and even a built-in elevator.
Swathed in white Georgian Marble on the outside and Italian marble on the inside, it covers 23,000 square feet and comprises of 52 rooms. It took more than 300 artisans to build it and 8 years, the inspiration for it being Villa Medici in Rome.
La pièce de résistance is a 4,000 piece Tiffany stained-glass window and a domed ceiling resembling Mrs. Dooley, which you can see a glimpse of down below. Supposedly, it is the largest Tiffany found in any private home in America.
There is not much furniture left in the mansion. Most of the rooms are bare, which, I think, helps turn the eye to the details; to the infinitesimal degradation of color, in the object and which shows the slow progression of time. It’s this heightened awareness that I enjoy when I visit places like Swannanoa.
You won’t get overwhelmed here, like I have seen happen in many grand houses in Europe where the abundance of furniture, the busy and intricate rug motifs, the crowded display of china, pottery and art tire the eye and the mind quickly. It can be too much to process after a while, which in turn makes one move from room, to room, to room, and at the end, tired and mentally exhausted, just wanting to be done with it all.
Therefore, Swannanoa is great to discover with kids that have sensory issues because both the mansion and the grounds are easy to explore at leisure and are not overcrowded, either by tourists or decor.
Outside, there are terraced gardens to explore, an abandoned gardener’s cottage and a tower. The grounds around the mansion seemed wild and untamed, romantic and dreamy, and easy to discover at owns pace.
Lovebirds, romantics, daydreamers and anyone looking to escape the dreariness of ordinary life, find solace here amidst the tall, uncut grass, winding paths and sweeping vistas. And then, that cool, sleek marble everywhere!
If you are a gilded age era enthusiast, then Swannanoa will offer you a delightful respite from the modern day and age by transporting you to a different time period.
Since the place is closed at the moment, make sure to save and bookmark this post for future reference and keep up with new opening times on their Facebook page.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion! let me know what you thought about it or if you’ve visited the place before down below.