Swannanoa is an Italian Renaissance Revival villa built in 1912 by millionaire and philanthropist James H. Dooley (1841–1922) above Rockfish Gap on the border of northern Nelson County and Augusta County, Virginia, in the US. It is partially based on buildings in the Villa Medici, Rome.
Intended to be a "summer place" for Richmond, Virginia millionaire and philanthropist James H. Dooley and his wife Sarah "Sallie" O. May, it reportedly took over 300 artisans eight years to build the structure, complete with Georgian marble, Tiffany windows, gold plumbing fixtures, and terraced gardens. Built as a token of love from husband to wife, the depth of James and Sallie May's relationship was represented in the 4,000 piece Tiffany stained-glass window and a domed ceiling bearing the likeness of Mrs. Dooley. Despite the lavish expenditure, it was occupied only for a few years following completion in 1912.
Major Dooley died in 1924 at the age of 82. He left Swannanoa entirely to his wife, Sally Mae, along with several million dollars. Sallie May Dooley died in 1926 at the age of 79. She left the estate to Major Dooley's two sisters.
When the property was built it had state-of-the-art fixtures for the time. Electricity and plumbing were installed in the house. It was the first house to have electricity in Nelson County and to accomplish this it had its own power plant on the property. There also was a built-in elevator. Like Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's house 27 miles away, it had a dumbwaiter to bring food up from the basement kitchen to the dining room on the first floor.
The sisters sold Swannanoa in 1926 to the Valley Corporation of Richmond, which became the second owner of Swannanoa. They planned and opened a country club in 1929 and closed in 1932. During that time they built the stone building on the property rumored to house the region's best moonshine distillery and which was a favored supplier for government officials during Prohibition. The golf course was an 18-hole course. It was during Swannanoa's time as a country club that Calvin Coolidge had Thanksgiving dinner (1928) at the mansion. The sumptuous accommodations and isolation from the Capitol's hubbub seemed to affect Mrs. Coolidge deeply, giving her "the giddiness of a mare in the spring" according to the waitstaff. Calvin was typically silent on the subject, but seemed rather drawn and sleepy for the next day's hunting.
The United States Navy considered purchasing and renovating the property in 1942, which they calculated would cost $200,000, for the purpose of establishing a secret facility to interrogate prisoners of war. The military rejected it in favor of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Fort Hunt, Virginia, code named P. O. Box 1142, because it seemed unlikely that Congress would approve the purchase of such a palatial structure for the purpose.
The mansion can be toured today and rented for weddings and events. Visit https://www.facebook.com/SwannanoaOfficialPage/ for more information.
Photos by Kory Steele
4,000 Piece Tiffany stained glass window depicting Sarah Dooley
Moorish smoking room
Photos by SARAH HONOSKY