Swannanoa Palace, Afton, Virginia’s Mansion

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Once upon a time, there was a magnificent white palace that sat amidst the lush greenery of the mountains, overlooking the valley below with a lofty pride. This palace was a gift, a labor of love from an honorific major to his beloved wife, and it stands today in beautiful disrepair, a symbol of a century past. The Italianate marble structure is worn with time, the domed ceilings and stained-glass windows layered with dust. Many of the courtyard pillars have begun to crumble with age, and some have even said that the ghosts of the past still haunt the grounds.

No, this is not the setting of a new thriller movie or a gothic, romance novel. This white palace is Swannanoa Mansion, which stand on Afton Mountain in Virginia. Major James Dooley, a millionaire and philanthropist, ordered this 52-room, Villa de Medici-replica to be built as a gift to his wife, Sally Mae (whose likeness remains looking down from the domed ceiling). Dooley furnished the palace with Georgian marble, gold fixtures, terraced gardens, and Tiffany windows, and it is said that over 300 artisans worked for nearly eight years to complete the project. Major Dooley died in 1924 and Sally Mae in 1926, leaving the palace to James’ sisters. Ownership later changed hands again, and from 1929 to 1932, Swannanoa was a country club (and also reportedly earned the reputation of the best moonshine distillery in the area).

As time passed, the U.S. Navy briefly considered using Swannanoa as a secret interrogation facility during World War II, but the idea was rejected. Instead, Walter and Lao Russell, two acclaimed New Age philosophers, established it as the University of Science and Philosophy.

The current owner offers private tours of the estate as well as open houses, so if you would like a chance to walk through history, don’t miss these tours! (And don’t forget to book your room at the Iris Inn.)

Swannanoa Mansion on Afton Mountain

Photo by Rick Stillings

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