Swannanoa: The mysterious mountaintop mansion, its little-known history

WonderliAtSwannanoaOn Thursday, December 4, Airisun Wonderli, Augusta County native and author, will pull back the curtain of mystery that sometimes has hidden the magnificent marble Swannanoa that stands atop the line between Augusta and Nelson counties.  As a part of the Augusta County Historical Society’s Stuart Talk series, Wonderli will speak at 7 p.m. in the second floor lecture room in the R. R. Smith Center at 20 South New Street in Staunton.

Drawing from her research for her book “Swannanoa: A Pictorial History – Its Past and People,” Wonderli will describe the magnificent mountaintop mansion and it’s first 100 years.  Completed by Richmond millionaire James Dooley in 1912, the splendid structure’s name probably reflected his wife’s love for the graceful birds and their remarkable mating for life.

After the Dooleys’ deaths, Swannanoa saw some years as a country club before being essentially unused for many years.  Ultimately it was leased by Walter Russell and his wife Lao in 1948. Walter was an internationally known painter, sculptor, writer, philosopher and mystic who promoted a cosmic philosophy based on the unlocking of one’s inner self.  They used the mansion to house their University of Science and Philosophy.  Walter died in 1962 and his wife continued and expanded the university until her death in 1988.  The university moved from the mountaintop location in 1998.

Wonderli was drawn to Swannanoa as a teen when she heard Lao Russell speak to her class at Fort Defiance High School.  She has worked with the mansion’s present owners and, with other volunteers, helps maintain the structure and conduct public tours.  She assembled her new book using archived materials and photos from local libraries and the Russells’ university.

The ACHS was founded in 1964 to study, collect, preserve, publish, educate about, and promote the history of Augusta County and its communities. The society is marking its 50th year in 2014 with special events and presentations.  More information is available online at www.augustacountyhs.org.

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