This Abandoned Italian Mansion Was the First House with Electricity in Nelson County

Diana Rus
Swannanoa in presentSwannanoa (mansion)/ Wikipedia

Villa Swannanoa was constructed in 1912 by philanthropist and entrepreneur James H. Dooley in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

The villa is located above Rockfish Gap on the border of northern Nelson and Augusta counties in Virginia, USA.

It is situated above the Shenandoah and Rockfish valleys on the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains. The mansion is in both Augusta and Nelson counties since it is located in a jurisdictional boundary.

The house's architecture is inspired by Villa Medici, Rome.
The main staircase in the entrance hallSwannanoa (mansion)/ Wikipedia

James H. Dooley, a millionaire and philanthropist from Richmond, Virginia, and his wife Sarah "Sallie" O. May planned to use the property as a "summer place."

The building, complete with Georgian marble, Tiffany windows, and terraced gardens, reportedly was built by over 300 artisans and took eight years to build.

Built as a gift from husband to wife, the 4,000-piece Tiffany stained-glass window and the domed ceiling with Mrs. Dooley's portrait capture the intensity of James and Sallie May's love.

Despite the extravagant cost, it was only occupied for a few years after it was finished in 1912.

In 1922, Major Dooley passed away at the age of 82. He left Sallie Mae, his wife, the house, along with many million dollars. In 1925, Sallie May Dooley passed away at the age of 79. After his wife's death, the property was left to Major Dooley's four sisters.

Following Sallie May's death, many pieces of Swannanoa furniture were relocated to Maymont. At Maymont in Richmond, Virginia, her Swan furniture and bed are on exhibit.

When the building was constructed, the property had modern features. The house had plumbing and electricity installed. It had its own power plant on the property, making it the first home in Nelson County to have electricity. There was an elevator included as well.

It had a dumbwaiter to bring food from the basement kitchen to the butler's pantry on the first level, just like Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home 27 miles away.

The second owner of Swannanoa was the Valley Corporation of Richmond after the sisters sold it to them in 1926. The Swannanoa Country Club and Golf Course were created and inaugurated in 1927.

The Dooley sisters recovered the property in 1932 because the country club had no profit because of the 1929 Depression.

They constructed a modest stone building on the land during the Country Club era for visitors to pay their golf fees. Moreover, it was said to have the best moonshine distillery in the area, which was a preferred supplier for government officials during Prohibition.

The golf course had 18 holes. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, had Thanksgiving dinner at the home in 1928 while the mansion was still a country club.

In 1942, the US Navy considered buying and renovating the building, which they estimated would cost $200,000, in order to establish a secret facility to interrogate prisoners of war.

Because it was unlikely that Congress would approve the acquisition of such a grandiose facility for the purpose, the military rejected it in favor of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Fort Hunt, Virginia.

During the Great Depression and World War II, the mansion was empty until A.T. Dulaney bought it with a group of Charlottesville businessmen and established Skyline Swannanoa, Inc. In 1944.

In 1948, Walter Russell rented Swannanoa for his University of Science and Philosophy.

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