During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the northeast and its countrysides were the playground for America's wealthy industrialists. From Newport's Breakers to Lynnewood Hall, the tycoons of the Industrial Revolution built the modern palaces of the United States. Unfortunately, like the countless castles erected across Europe centuries before the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were household names, some didn't survive and others have been left to nature.
Nearby Philadelphia, Horace Trumbauer's Lynnewood Hall awaits uncertainty. Faced with politicos who've suggested razing the historic mansion for a shopping mall, a real estate market with no demand for a 70,000 square-foot fixer-upper, and no philanthropist stepping forward with heaps of cash, Lynnewood Hall may fall.
When I was a kid in rural Virginia, I was always fascinated with architecture. Particularly the palatial estates of the Gilded Age. My hometown - population 210 - was full of modestly sized, yet still elaborate plantation homes. Prior to the Civil War, these would have likely been large tobacco farms. Just as the North dominated industry, the South was its farming equivalent.
The Civil War eviscerated the South's farming communities, and rightfully so. Whereas many of the North's elite weathered the war, building bigger and bigger prior to the Great Depression, the plantations in the South faced the Reconstruction Era or their own devices. Reconstruction largely targeted the South's war ravaged cities - Atlanta and Richmond - while those in the rural areas, particularly the Appalachian Mountains hunkered down and clung to the past.
Well into the 1980s, I remember these places. They were the homes of my classmates and teachers, descendants more than a century removed from the Civil War and the unbridled and sinister opulence that preceded it, frozen in time. Decrepit oak trees lines the long drives to these estates, flanking grand white columns or porticos. Cracked oil paintings of unnamed ancestors lined the walls of ancient parlors decorated with a mix of antiquities and furnishings from big-box department stores. Untouched and faded, they smelled of musty newspapers and untreated wood. Not bad, just aging.
Since then many have changed hands to find new life. As my peers left their farms for cities like Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Norfolk, their parents had abandoned the burden of 100 year old plumbing and rusty window units. The dot-com boom of the 1990s reinvented Northern Virginia, enabling a new era of industrialists seeking lavish amenities from the past and the quiet of the country. The Shenandoah Valley's abundance and accessibility of affordable panache drove countless restoration projects.
Once marred by struggling small towns, Virginia's western edge is now a collection of boutique villages surrounded by grand estates, both new and old, vacation homes for a new generation that knows nothing of the region's past. But New Money will someday be Old Money, and today will someday be history. Perhaps that's the idea that drives preservation.
Yet where the most livable of historic places find new life with ease, it's those most deserved of salvation that struggle the most. Lynnewood Hall is a prime example. In the Shenandoah Valley, or at its edge, is a similarly unfortunate story, one few even know exists.
Swannanoa, designed by Baskerville & Noland, was built atop Afton Mountain by Richmond philanthropist, James H. Dooley. Built in 1912 as a retreat for Dooley and his wife, Sallie, Swannanoa is every bit as lavish as Lynnewood Hall, but also carries with it a storied and very personal history.
More than 300 artisans spent eight years perfecting the mansion complete with gilded fixtures, stained-glass Tiffany windows, and a domed ceiling with a portrait of Mrs. Dooley. The retreat, according to James Dooley, was a symbol of the love he and Sallie had for one another.
Swannanoa was only occupied briefly following its completion. After the death of Mr. Dooley in 1924, and then his wife in 1926, it was passed to his sisters who quickly sold the retreat to the Valley Corporation of Richmond. Since then it served as a country club during Prohibition, one that purportedly distilled the best moonshine in the region. During World War II the Navy considered purchasing the mansion as a place to interrogate prisoners of war. Then, and for much of its life, the Valley Corporation leased it to Walter Russell and the University of Science and Philosophy.
Education is often a good avenue for restoration, or at least adaptive reuse. But the University of Science and Philosophy was more cult than college. When I toured the house in high school we were forced to watch a promotional video about Russell's University, a video very similar to those used to propagate Scientology. Nonetheless, the video guaranteed a well earned tour which was every bit as astounding as you'd suspect. But unlike the restored Breakers or Biltmore Estate, Swannanoa shared the same quirky, lived-in characteristics of so many plantation homes throughout the Shenandoah Valley in the 1980s and 90s.
Marble floors and columns were accompanied by modular tables and folding chairs, and boxes upon boxes of University paperwork. Modern file cabinets stood haphazardly against wood carvings and priceless works of art. The bizarre juxtaposition between the ultimate dedication of Dooley's love for Sallie and Russell's religious ideology made it much more interesting than an intricately restored house museum. It wasn't only authentic, it represented both its Gilded Age history as well as a history not yet in textbooks. It was weird, and it was real.
Outside, the expansive grounds are overgrown and crumbling. Shrubbery is unkempt, its fountains are dry, and the statuary - whether dedicated to the gods of ancient democracy or modern capitalism - weathered by the sands of time.
J. F. Dulaney, Jr. now owns the property and offers occasional tours of the first floor. There are tentative plans to convert the mansion into a bed-and-breakfast and it's occasionally rented out for weddings. Like Lynnewood Hall, Swannanoa's consistent occupation, however erratic, can largely be credited for its survival. While it has not been completely preserved, the mansion has been maintained.
Unfortunately preservationists in Virginia, while every bit as historic as the most Colonial parts of Pennsylvania, perhaps even more so, look at their history much the way Philadelphia did in the 1950s and 60s. While we've come to embrace our Furnesses, our Hales, and our Deckers, Virginia continues to neglect anything not synonymous with Colonial History or "Old South." Swannanoa is neither, and while that in itself makes it ever more unique than most of the Commonweath's Presidential landmarks, it - and sites like it - are routinely ignored.
Swannanoa is currently open two weekends each month throughout this summer, but you'll have to use Google Maps to find it and simply show up. Although Dulaney, Jr. is doing what he can to show the home, no website exists and marketing is minimal. If you've ever wanted to tour Lynnewood Hall and been unable to find a realtor willing to show you a $17M property, I suggest heading about five hours south. You will not be disappointed.
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