A Gilded Age mansion built of gleaming white marble and decorated with sumptuous materials—including a 4,000 piece Tiffany stained glass window—sits at the juncture between Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Overlooking Charlottesville, this surprising 52-room country estate built in the Italian Renaissance revival style in 1912 was intended as a gift to Sarah “Sallie” Dooley from her husband financier and philanthropist James Dooley.
It’s really not the kind of thing one usually sees on Skyline Drive or the parkway—National Park Service architecture, 19th century cemeteries, wildflowers and even bears are generally more common.
Swannanoa, named so for Sallie’s love for swans, is opened to visitors by owner Phil Dulaney for a few weekends during the warm weather months. The mansion is mostly empty, and there are corners of peeling paint and torn wallpaper and faded hand-painted flowers in the Breakfast Room. The Marquette floors are intact but the staircase to the tower is a bit iffy. My Dachsund Klaus doesn’t mind—he scampers up the steps for the view.
The primary house for the Dooleys is in Richmond; another large creation called Maymount, which today contains a bed built to look like a gliding swan, originally in Swannanoa.
Swannanoa is unique; it exists somewhere between living and dying. A team of 300 artisans—likely contingencies of European immigrants with the skills to carve fountains, lay herringbone patterned floors and paint walls—came to build the mansion at a cost of $2 million. The cost to preserve the mansion today would be many more millions. Perhaps tens of millions. Much more money than can be raised by selling a few house tour tickets. A visit is a fitting end to summer. After leaf peeping season passes, the house will be closed up, winter will set in, and Swannanoa will wait, like the rest of us, to see another spring.
Laura A. Macaluso is a Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. She is currently completing a book about the Portrait of Cinque/Sengbe, a painting from 1840 which depicts the leader of the Amistad mutiny, one of the few successful slave revolts in western history (AASLH/Rowman & Littlefield). She was a Fulbright Scholar to Swaziland in 2008-2010 and enjoys learning and writing about cultural heritage from across the globe.