Afton’s Palace: Swannanoa Mansion
There is a marble palace that sits atop Afton Mountain, its grounds and 52 rooms uninhabited, worn by time and neglect. Swannanoa Mansion was built in 1912 by James H. Dooley, a major in the Confederate army, railroad executive and philanthropist, as a gift for his wife Sallie May.
The building itself is a design worthy of a fictional, storybook setting—an exterior of white Georgia marble, an interior of Carrera marble from Italy, Tiffany windows, a terraced garden, a lookout tower, and a domed ceiling bearing the hand-painted visage of Sallie May. It even had amenities like electricity, an elevator, and a dumbwaiter that ascended and descended the basement kitchen and the dining room. (Seriously, Jay Gatsby himself could have lived comfortably in this mansion!)
In spite of its lavish design and picturesque location, the Dooleys summer home was only in use for a few years after its construction. After James and Sallie May died, the palace was passed to James’ sisters, and later turned it into a country club, which at one time entertained President Calvin Coolidge. From the time of the Great Depression until World War II, Swannanoa Palace was unused. The Navy briefly considered using it as a facility to question prisoners of war, but they were dissuaded by the expense. (They even gave the mansion a code name: P.O. Box 1142.)
Eventually, Swannanoa Palace came under the care of Walter and Lao Russell after Lao had had a “vision,” instructing them to take their New Age philosophies to the palace. There they founded the University of Science and Philosophy.