Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Swannanoa Palace, a Crumbling Gem that still Shines

On Saturday morning, Melony and Jenn showed up at Meadow House and we drove down to Afton, VA to meet about 50 members of DCUE at Swannanoa Palace. Thinking it was going to be a mild day, I didn't have a single hand warmer on me and immediately regretted this calamity as I stepped out of the car, Mr Dulaney, the owner, was inside the building and threw open a ground floor window as I approached. My face instantly froze as an arctic gale blasted my skin from the dark stone interior and I developed an immediate respect for this owner who showed no discomfort whatsoever. He then pulled open the huge wooden doors inlaid with bronze sculptures and I stepped back, not wanting another frigid freeze to hit me. Letting everyone in he  apologized for the lack of heating but it was understood that this was an expense he couldn't afford. People walked in but I stood back, planning on returning to photograph the interior once some of the air from outside had warmed it up a little.
Swannanoa means 'beautiful river' and was built in 1912, costing $3 million, by James H. Dooley. 300 artisans took 8 years to build the palace and the interior is incredibly and intricately decorated. A beautifully elaborate token of his love to his wife, Sallie May, it was sadly only used for a few years as Major Dooley passed away in 1924 with his wife dying the following year. It had a brief run as a country club during which time it gained a reputation for having the region's best moonshine distillery which supplied government officials. It closed down in 1932 and was eventually leased to Walter and Lao Russell, from 1949 to 1998, who set up the University of Science and Philosophy there. Mr Dulaney has owned the property with a consortium since 1942 but unfortunately there are currently no plans to restore the palace. It sits on top of Afton Mountain with almost completely unobstructed panoramic views of the Shenandoah and Rockfish valleys.
The house and gardens have an Italian theme built with marble inside and out. The terraces out the back are slowly collapsing and the pathways sinking. Benches and fountains are cracked and chipped and I wondered if there were any bulbs waiting under the frozen earth that would soon burst forth to try to add some color and joy to this abandoned and neglected garden.
This is the water tower once holding over 20,000 gallons but now dry and dusty with broken steps climbing up inside and around the tank.
After having waited about an hour or so I ventured inside the house. It was still freezing within, colder than a morgue, making it easy to believe that the palace could well be haunted, as believed by some paranormal groups who have spent nights there.
A 40,000 piece Tiffany window that apparently cost $3500 in 1912. It features Sallie May standing in the garden that she helped to create, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. It was made in Italy and was reportedly shipped here in one piece.
The domed ceiling in the grand hallway also features Sallie May, with references to the Dooley name along with cherubs and other decorations depicting love.
The detailed decoration is everywhere you look, on the walls, ceilings, floors, on wood panels, fireplaces and doors. not one part of the interior could be considered plain or unfinished. And surprisingly, so far, the damage to all of this artwork is minimal. No detail is repeated, panels are all individually created from the marble carvings on the front of the house naming the seasons, the bronze cherub panels on the front door and the paneled friezes covering walls and ceilings of the rooms inside.
Outside some of our intrepid explorers had discovered another building which most of us hadn't been aware of, so we walked down a path to find it.
This had once been the stables and the carriage house. A couple of old carriages were being left to rust and rot while a large part of the building was slowly collapsing inwards. A lot of old junk has been dumped here, old mass produced pictures and lamps, maybe left from the Russell days when they would have had many guests.
It's very difficult to take in all the details on one visit, so much love and effort had been put into the creation of this place that I feel it's an actual crime to let it fall into disrepair. I find it hard to believe that if a consortium owns this then surely there must be funds available to restore the palace or an interest to raise money for those purposes, but after walking around and researching on the internet, it's apparent that there sadly is no interest in preserving this treasure. Mr Dulaney was extremely hospitable and accommodating but I discovered that he also owns the Afton Inn, which has steadily declined and is now ruins, a link is here.
After seeing everybody's photos I plan to return in the fall to capture some more shots of this wonderful place while it is still in relatively good condition, but I don't know how many more winters it can survive the elements without any repair work being done. I usually love an abandoned building and appreciate its crumbling haunting beauty, but this is one place which should not be allowed to reach that point. Shame on those who do allow it, and those who can let this beautiful and original work of art disappear forever.
This is a link to a book published last year, click on the photos at the bottom to show the palace in better times.

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