Located on the peak of the Blue Ridge mountains, Swannanoa was intended to be a summer home for Richmond millionaire and philanthropist Major 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.
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 it had a dumbwaiter to bring food up from the basement kitchen to the dining room on the first floor.
The United States Navy considered purchasing and renovating the property in 1942. The project 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 a marble palace for covert interrogation purposes.
Major Dooley died in 1924 at the age of 82. He left Swannanoa entirely to his wife. When she died in 1926 at the age of 79, she left the estate to his two sisters.
The mansion stood empty through the Great Depression and World War II, existing solitary as the marble palace in the woods. The home lives with legend of intricate design, artistic construction, and other worldly energies – a token of everlasting love, after all.