The Gilded Age was a period of excess and wealth for a select few families in America, and a prime example of that luxurious living was James & Sally May Dooley, original owners of Richmond’s Maymont estate and their Afton summer home, the magnificent Swannanoa.
Maymont, a 100-acre estate along the James River, was the Dooley's main home and is well known for its pristine gardens, native animal sanctuary, and serene rolling hills. The mansion is open to the public for ticketed tours, but the grounds are open daily from 10 am - 5 pm with no ticket required, although a donation of $5 is suggested.
Built as a monument to James’s love for his wife, Sallie May, Swannanoa is an architectural masterpiece, with exterior walls made of marble and a portrait of Sallie Mae above the ornate staircase made of Tiffany glass–the largest Tiffany glass portrait in the country located in a privately-owned estate.
The Dooley’s Grand Beginning
Beginning in the late 1880s and lasting through the 1910s, the Gilded Age saw the rise of many prominent families in America, such as the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts. James Henry Dooley belonged to this class of grand American wealth, and like these famed businessmen, the circumstances of his fortune were not all due to his hard work and talents.
Following the end of the Civil War, the American South began a decades-long period of Reconstruction. The country’s once-idyllic landscapes had been razed during the war, and the government’s focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure provided an opportunity for certain individuals to prosper tremendously. Railroads were a key component of development during Reconstruction, and Dooley’s investments in this industry, as well as other booming industries like real estate, insurance, steel, and banking, made him one of the richest men in Virginia.
Dooley started his career as a lawyer in Virginia, and the connections he made from this position no doubt played a role in his business successes as he moved into the commercial investment sector.
Building Richmond’s Historic Maymont Estate
After amassing a great fortune, James Dooley and his wife, Sallie, decided to put down roots on the edge of his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Like other millionaires of the Gilded Age, the Dooleys showcased their extreme wealth by building an elaborate home–Maymont, a 100-acre estate with rolling hills and idyllic pastures.
The Dooleys purchased the land for this opulent country home in 1886, and using her husband's nearly unlimited funds, Sallie poured her time and energy into transforming the rough landscape into an example of rural Virginia living at its finest. Once established, the Dooleys named the estate, “Maymont”- a combination of Sallie’s middle name, May, and the French word for mountain, “Mont”.
Completed in 1893, Maymont featured a Romanesque-style mansion surrounded by rolling hills, manicured lawns, and pristine gardens. James and Sallie enjoyed traveling all over the globe and spent the next three decades collecting unique furniture, artwork, and other treasures to fill their lavish home.
Maymont’s Gardens: Planting a Legacy
Sallie was especially fond of collecting new flowers and trees on her travels that could be cultivated in Virginia, and imported more than 200 species of trees and plants in the early 20th century. The trees established at Maymont thrived, and since 1986, the collection, a mix of both native and exotic trees from places like Japan, has been recognized as one of the country’s most notable arboretums.
The Dooleys continued adding to the estate’s landscape in the early 1900s, hiring a Richmond firm to build the Italian Garden, a stark contrast to the English pastoral style found throughout the rest of the property. In 1911, they purchased an adjoining tract of land that ran along the canal and hired Muto, a renowned Japanese gardener, to build a Japanese Garden below the Italian Garden.
The diversity of landscapes and garden styles found on Maymont’s sprawling grounds made it one of the most unique estates in all of America, and these stunning designs still draw hundreds of visitors each day to wander the peaceful pathways.
Not All That Glitters Is Gold
While the Dooleys can be credited with the design elements and architectural choices of their ornate home, the building and running of such a massive estate was left to others. Black Southerners of the era were technically freed from slavery, but the conditions and pay for those individuals working on estates like Maymont during the Gilded Age stood in stark contrast to the lifestyle enjoyed by their employers.
The Dooleys typically had a staff of seven to ten people working within the home, as well as groundskeepers who worked seasonally to maintain the grounds. With few exceptions, these employees were nearly all Black, and strict racial segregation imposed in America during the early 1900s meant that these workers had to either live on-site or travel far distances from the Black sections of Richmond, making the workday that much longer due to the commute.
Recognizing the contributions of the Dooleys to Richmond’s history is important, but these historic achievements could have never happened without the hard work and underpaid labor of many unnamed Black Virginians. When visiting Maymont, take the guided tour to hear about how these workers made a luxurious life at the estate possible for the Dooleys.
Swannanoa: A Second Grand Estate
James Dooley built Maymont in his hometown of Richmond, but Sallie May hailed from Staunton, and she longed for the serene charm of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. James Dooley once again used his expansive fortune to build an impressive residence, and their summer home, called Swannanoa, was completed in 1912 above Rockfish Gap near the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive.
The mansion’s exterior is made from marble sourced from Georgia, while the interior is heavily adorned with Italian and Georgian marble, ornately designed fireplaces, and hand-carved accents. A 4,000-piece Tiffany stained-glass window is the largest Tiffany window in a private residence in America and features a portrait of Mrs. Dooley. According to reports published during the time, it took over 300 artisans several years to build the estate, and the home was outfitted with many state-of-the-art features, such as electricity, plumbing, and central heat, all luxurious novelties in the early 1900s. As it was the first home in Nelson County to have electricity, they even had to build a power plant on the grounds.
James and Sallie spent their first summer at Swannanoa in 1913. They still spent much of their years in Richmond or traveling abroad, but Swannanoa was an ideal summer getaway, with naturally cool marble and mountain breezes that alleviated the worst of the season’s heat. Sallie poured her energy into decorating this new home, collecting new furniture and exotic decor to outfit Swannanoa during the couple’s extensive travels.
One notable piece is Sallie’s swan bed, a large ornate bed frame carved in the shape of an elegant swan that was part of a swan bedroom furniture set. While this set was originally housed at Swannanoa, it was eventually moved to Maymont to keep it preserved, along with many other rare items from the mountain estate.
The Fall of an American Dynasty
The Dooleys loved children, but as they were unable to have any of their own, the passing of James and Sallie Dooley left no immediate heirs for their palatial estates. James Dooley died in 1922, and Sallie Dooley followed just three years later, passing away at her beloved Swannanoa in 1925.
Unlike many wealthy Americans, the Dooleys were generous with their massive fortunes and believed in charitable giving. The Dooleys left their Maymont estate to the city, ensuring future generations of Richmonders, no matter their financial standing, would be able to enjoy the immaculate property in the heart of the capital city. Just six months after Sallie passed away, the property was opened as a public park and museum.
The donation of the massive property was just one example of the Dooley’s philanthropic nature; Sallie made sure that the passion projects that she and James spent much of their lives championing were funded in her will, with sizable bequests including $500,000 to the Crippled Children’s Hospital, $500,000 to the Richmond Public Library, and $250,000 to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, as well as the proceeds from her jewels benefitting Episcopal mission trips.
A Difficult Century for Swannanoa
While Maymont became a public property under the steward of Richmond’s city government, Swannanoa was left to James Dooley’s sisters. They could not afford the upkeep of the extravagant property, and it was quickly sold and converted into a prestigious country club and golf course. During this time, many famous guests would stay at Swannanoa, including U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, who spent one Thanksgiving dining and relaxing at the property.
However, this country club transformation was short-lived–the Great Depression shuttered the club by 1929 and the sisters retook possession in 1932. They kept the golf course open for those exclusive visitors who could still afford the leisurely activity, building a small stone building for players to pay golf fees. Reportedly, the structure also served as the best moonshine distillery in the region during Prohibition, and it was rumored to be a favorite supplier for government officials looking for high-quality bootleg spirits. But Swannanoa largely sat abandoned for the next twelve years, as it was too expensive for the sisters to maintain the home and grounds year-round.
In 1944, James Dulaney, a developer looking to acquire land in the Rockfish Gap area, bought Swannanoa as part of a 568-acre package deal. Not wanting to worry about home maintenance, Dulaney at first boarded up the home, but in 1948, renowned artist Dr. Walter Russell and his wife made a “handshake” deal with Dulaney that would allow them to rent the home as a school and museum in exchange for also maintaining the home. This deal would last 50 years, and while the Russells remained in residence, the home gradually fell into further and further disrepair. Winters on the mountain are brutal, and the wind between the two valleys often caused damage to the building exterior and the grounds, popping the expensive terra cotta shingles off the roof and felling trees.
Upon Mrs. Russell’s death in 1988 and until 1998, the Dulaney family decided to convert Swannanoa into a museum to showcase Walter Russell’s extensive collection of artwork.
Visiting Maymont & Swannanoa Today
Although the Dooleys were generous in their gesture of leaving Maymont to the city of Richmond, they left no funds to maintain the property. In 1975, Maymont Foundation, a private nonprofit, was formed to undertake maintenance and overall responsibility for the preservation of Maymont. The group utilizes grants, private donations, and corporate contributions, and donations from visitors are also an important source of financial support.
Maymont is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places due to its significance as an American country estate of the Gilded Age, but it has become so much more. The property now includes an aquarium that highlights the ecology of the James River, a farm with goats, sheep, chickens, cows, and more that offers hands-on animal encounters, and a wildlife rehabilitation center where you can see native species like Black Bear, Bald Eagles, Bobcats, Red Foxes, and other rescued animals. In the spring, walk the Italian Gardens to see rows of vibrant blooming roses, or visit the Japanese Gardens for a meditative stroll through nature. Maymont even holds many live music performances and seasonal events throughout the year, such as Garden Glow in the fall, a holiday market at the beginning of December, and a family-friendly Easter event in April.
Swannanoa has belonged to only three owners in the century since James Dooley built the mountaintop palace–James Dooley’s sisters, the founders of the briefly-lived private country club, and the Dulaney family.
Today, owner Sandi Dulaney continues her husband’s beloved work of restoring Swannanoa to its original glory while educating and sharing Swannanoa with visitors through scheduled tours. As Swannanoa is still privately funded, repairs and maintenance are a slow but steady process, with each winter exacting a toll on the marble home. Yet, the estate is still a modern wonder, showcasing the elegance of early 20th-century craftsmanship. In addition to private events, tours, and photo shoots, Swannanoa hosts special seasonal events like Easter egg hunts, Halloween trick-or-treating, and pictures with Santa.
Experience the Gilded Age firsthand when you visit Maymont and Swannanoa, two of Virginia’s most beautiful historic estates.