RVA Mag set off one downcast Sunday in June to uncover the mysteries of Swannanoa, the Afton, Virginia mountain palace of the famous Dooley family. Before reaching Swannanoa, I was almost certain that Dee Dee, the attendant at the Waynesboro Shell Station, would be the last person to see us alive.
Waynesboro, Virginia is a small town in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains–a bleak, rural sprawl fringed by sloping foothills and rolling farmland. At first glance, this part of Virginia appears innocuous. It’s known for little more than its proximity to the Shenandoah National Park along with a litany of recent drug busts. However, there is a history of the bizarre nestled in these mountains.
Sitting on top of one such mountain is the mysterious mansion built by one of Richmond’s most historic families, and the first stop in a summer of paranormal investigations undertaken by RVA Mag throughout the Commonwealth.
Before taking the winding road up to Swannanoa, we talked with Dee Dee about the rumors surrounding the mansion. A Waynesboro native, she alluded to the fact that something strange goes on at the top of the mountain; she has heard the rumors her entire life. She refuses to even visit the marble mansion that overlooks Rockfish Gap.
We don’t have the same concerns.
Swannanoa Palace is an iconic fixture of Afton – a once lavish estate built from blocks of Carrara marble – complete with terraced English gardens, intricate wooden paneling, a Persian tower, and enormous installations of Tiffany stained glass, some of the most coveted in the US.
The palace’s renown is rivaled only by the rumors surrounding it–a cocktail of urban legends and local mythos that range from ghost sightings to the occult.
Swannanoa was constructed as a summer home in 1912 by railroad magnate James H. Dooley, the same millionaire who built Maymont Mansion–the gilded age estate which sits in Maymont Park. And like Maymont Mansion, it was built for his wife, Sallie May Dooley, who remained childless, eventually dying at the estate in 1926.
Upon entering the dilapidated mansion at Swannanoa, the first thing you see is an enormous stained glass window of Sallie May, which dominates the cavernous foyer and sits atop a grand staircase.
Before taking an ad-hoc tour of Swannanoa, I check in with our team. Everyone is already scattered around the mansion; we’re a B-list Scooby Doo remake, minus the dog. By the end of our “investigation”, I am hoping to unmask at least one wealthy landowner in a ghost costume.
The tour is given by Airisun Wonderli, an Augusta County native and author of Swannanoa Palace: A Pictorial History—Its Past and People, who recently moved onto the Swannanoa grounds. Wonderli is not only a historian of Swannanoa, but a member of the University of Science and Philosophy (USP), a spiritual group dedicated to the teachings of its creators.
The University was founded at Swannanoa in 1948 by Walter and Lao Russell, who leased the mansion for 50 years. Walter was a philosopher, author, and artist, who Wonderli claims Walter Cronkite called the “Leonardo Da Vinci of our time” when he died in 1963. Lao was a self-made woman from England, a former model and businesswoman, who shared Walter’s visions of grandeur and his unique cosmogony.
Despite the thirty years that separated them in age, Wonderli called their relationship “one of the greatest love stories that has ever happened.” Walter and Lao’s journey to find Swannanoa was “prewritten”, according to Wonderli, a key mechanism in a larger design, part of the destiny they spent their lives trying to fulfill.
This included a three day “illumination” in 1946, in which Lao looked across a valley as Jesus placed a hand on her shoulder and experienced visions. After this, she was determined to find the ‘sacred mountain’ in her visions. The Russells spent their honeymoon in search of the right mountain top, one where Lao felt she could establish a “world cultural center.”
“[Lao] looked out on the view I have right now of Rockfish Gap, and she said, ‘This is it,’” said Wonderli. “There’s an energy up there, under the palace, that goes very, very deep… There have been too many people who walked on that land and felt a presence there.”
Matt Presti, the current president of USP, agreed that there is something special about the top of the mountain where Swannanoa sits.
I’ve heard people say it’s a vortex, but for me the experience of being at a higher elevation with a view,” Presti said. “It’s more about the inspiration you receive from such natural places of power.
USP is a home-study university dedicated to educating its followers about universal law, natural science, and living philosophy, all of which are designed to lead to self-transcendence. The teachings focus around the works and writings of Walter and Lao Russell, like Walter’s 1947 book The Secret of Light, which sought to create a spiritual foundation under science. Much of it’s based around the metaphysical idea of the “Creator.”
Presti said they fill more than a thousand orders a year in home-study courses, and have a worldwide student body. “It’s more a living philosophy, as opposed to a dead one,” he said. “It’s cult proof as well in the sense that it has no middle man, there’s nothing between you and your own mind which is an extension of the creator.”
To Wonderli, USP’s following is no surprise, claiming that Swannanoa has a magnetic draw. This is true for students of the philosophy like Adrianne Boyer, who was working the information table when we arrived.
Boyer is a new convert, whose family left Texas to be closer to the University where her husband works as a scientist out of a “laboratory” in his basement. They are living on the mansion’s property now, and the same land where the Russells were buried after their death, or their “refolding,” as it is referred to by USP.
Even though time has forced the gaudy Italian Renaissance revival architecture into crumbling disrepair, the mansion is still striking. It towers over the front drive, a jagged alabaster tomb, its heavy wooden doors giving no hint at what lies inside.
A majority of the house is sealed away, but we were allowed to wander downstairs. The grand marble staircase curves to the second floor, where only one bedroom is open. It overlooks the wooded grounds, teasing a glimpse at the vast mountain valley that brought Lao and Walter to the estate 70 years ago.
While some of the mansion’s rooms are closed to the public, a look through any keyhole reveals piles of clutter. Wonderli said there are some rooms she has never been in. Other volunteers said no one has stepped foot in the basement in years, part of the house lost to rot and disuse.
The current owners, James and Sandi Dulaney, who keep the house open for tours, have spent millions attempting to repair the mansion, yet it has proved too much to maintain. Dulaney is also the owner of Afton Inn, a “blighted landscape” that mars the mountainside just below the palace, another project that has fallen into disrepair.
The deteriorating interior adds to the atmospheric small-town-lore for which house has become notorious. Hauntingly beautiful (despite cracked marble verandas), Latin inscribed wooden molding, and a mirrored elevator tucked behind what looked to be a hidden wall panel, the drop would be fatal if it caught you unawares.
The grounds are equally corroding, the marble exterior falling from the stairs that lead to a sparse landscape, a large, jagged crack running the length of the columned, italianate portico. There’s a tower growing out of the ivy on the back acreage of the property and, in true Shaggy fashion, my ill-advised exploration inside almost led to a plunge through a gap in the winding, rotting stairs to the dark basement below. Zoinks.
Wonderli said she has felt spirits at the house, though not malevolent. “That trauma gets caught,” Wonderli said of the Native American slaughter she assumes once happened on the land. She claims to have heard noises, or sensed a presence.
Afton locals, Lyle and Tonna Lotts, have conducted paranormal investigations in the area since 2011 with their team The Twisted Paranormal Society (TPS). They were more than eager to conduct an exploration of the mansion in 2013.
They said it was their most followed investigation by the Afton and Waynesboro community, and even though the Dulaneys did not let TPS do a full shut in or spend the night, they were allowed a few hours on the property until midnight.
Afton mountain has always had rumors of energy and spirits, said Lyle. “The way they used to do things up at Swannanoa for one thing, their beliefs, their religion, the things that they followed up there, I believe a lot of that created a lot of energy.”
While they would have liked more time in the house to conduct a more thorough investigation, they found enough to be convinced of Swannanoa’s haunting. They used video and audio equipment and K-II meters – a standard paranormal investigation tool that responds to EMF fluctuations – but much of the evidence could be heard without any electronic assistance.
Tonna recounts hearing footsteps while in one of the towers, and the sound of approaching feet when looking around the corner. They also heard an audible moan in the library in response to a question they asked of the purported spirit.
“I was the one holding the camera when the actual guttural sound happened… and of course everyone jumped,” Lyle said. “He was just letting us know we were interfering, were in his space… one of our members actually got very sick, on the second floor, and he had to leave because the energy had gotten so strong in that one corner at the top of the main stairs.”
They believe one of the ghosts belongs to Sallie May, who died in the Swan Room of the mansion, and is said to frequent the third floor. “Sallie May did not like cats,” said Tonna. “And the Dulaneys say, to this day, their cat will not go up on the third floor.”
Lyle believes some of the spirits came from the “second generation of the house,” The Russells and USP, which he referred to as a cult.
Despite the chance to do an initial investigation, Lyle called it “unfinished business.”
“There’s a basement there as well that we never even got to go into. And, of course, the tower that’s in the back,” said Lyle. Double zoinks.
Alongside the ghost stories, Swannanoa is home to some more fringe conspiracy theories. Among them involved the yearly homecomings of The Center of One Heart, an offshoot of USP that was created in 2000. Some members, like Wonderli and Boyer, are still a part of both organizations.
The homecomings were designed to be yearly retreats back to the mansion, even being held by Lao when she was alive. Airisun called it a gathering, a festival of sorts, where speakers from the group are invited to lecture.
“This would be more of what I imagine the Native Americans used to have,” said Wonderli. “They did a lot of vision quests and pow-pows up here. We’re choosing to call it a gathering, a milling of people.”
A 2015 post on The Center of One Heart website, called “The Electrifying Power of Male-Female Balance,” goes into detail about the meaning of their Homecoming that year.
“All are welcome to celebrate at the altar of the swan and to enjoy the magic and pure consciousness of a sacred site and vortex which will be magically re-opened again,” wrote One Heart member Devi Herrsche.
There are also plenty of rumors tying the Illuminati to Swannanoa, and a man who lived on the property next door, William Bennet Edwards, was known for spreading sensationalized stories about the mansion.
An archived 1992 article in The Washington Post documented a few of Edwards’ conspiracy theories – including sightings of the Queen of England, and a secret meeting place of something called the “agents of the council of 30.”
Vortexes, celebrity sightings, and the Illuminati aside, Swannanoa Mansion has a presence that keeps the space alive, even as the marble facade begins to crumble. There is a throughline of spirituality, beauty, and mystery that runs beneath the palace, and you don’t have to look much further than a simple visit to decide for yourself.
But if you ask me, I still think there’s something in the basement.
Photos by Landon Shroder