In my previous entry, I mentioned Swannanoa and I noted that it was fodder for an entry all to itself. So here goes.
Back around 1912/1913, a railroad magnate from Richmond, VA built an Italianate villa atop Afton Mountain (near Waynesboro, VA) as a summer home for his wife. Apparently, she liked swans--hence the name. The place was a stunner in its day, and it is still stunning, as you can see from this set of pictures
from a relatively recent visit (thank you google, and thanks to RigbyMel--if you see this, please let me know how you scored an invite to the old place).
Alas, the magnate and his wife didn't enjoy their palace for very long--she died and the place was abandoned for years. It held up pretty well, though, because in the late 1940s Walter and Lao Russell stumbled across it, took out a very lengthy lease on the property, and established their University of Science and Philosophy
there. As Walter was an artist and sculptor as well as a self-taught architect, philosopher, physicist, lecturer, cosmographer, and musician (busy guy, huh?), the huge mansion and the terraced gardens were the perfect place to display his work. This work included a huge sculpture of Jesus, set in the garden, called "The Christ of the Blue Ridge." Rumor around my hometown had it that he sculpted his own face on the statue--however, during the tour of the mansion, one of the guide's set pieces was the tale of how Lao, "who had never sculpt before," fashioned the face herself as a divine presence guided her hands. I will say that the statue didn't look much like the pictures of Walter on display around the place, so my guess is that it was not a self-portrait.
I never set eyes on the place myself until I was 16 and my friends and I could drive. Not that I hadn't been intrigued just about my whole life. After all, there were angel-topped gates up there near the top of Afton, along with a Howard Johnson's, a couple of cabin-court motels, a gas station, and some gift shops. The gates were clearly entry gates and nearby stood a big billboard touting Swannanoa, but there was no road that led through them. That intrigued me. Also, if you looked at just the right angle, you could see the ornate water tower peeking through the trees at the ridgeline. That also intrigued me. But my dad, inveterate agnostic that he was, was not about to suffer through a tour of the "crazy place" just to satisfy the whims of a six-year-old. Same with all my friends' dads. But once any of us could borrow the family car, we made regular visits.
I don't mean we went there every week or anything--maybe a couple of times a year. Certainly, if we made a new friend who had never been there, we dragged them up there. I wonder if the guide ever realized we were repeaters. Since we were gigglers, too, I guess it's pretty likely. Although the place must have gotten its share of gigglers aside from us. It was just such an odd mixture of beautiful architecture and appointments, interesting artwork, wacky new-agey flim-flammery, and raw capitalism that it made your head spin. It was well worth the price of admission, which was not all that much as I recall.
Only the first floor of the mansion was open for tours; Lao--who was by now Walter's widow--lived upstairs. (Years later, just before the lease ran out and the *University* had to vacate, I took Jeff on the tour. As Lao had died several years before, the living area upstairs was part of the tour as well. It was surprisingly mundane, except for the ornate bed with its satin spread and bejeweled Infant of Prague in Lao's room and the unfinished painting of a nude bubble dancer in Walter's old studio....) Anyway--you had to ring the bell to be admitted into the mansion. The guide was always the same woman wearing the same drab dress and brown cardigan and old-lady oxfords. But she was not an old lady. She could have been in her 30s; she could have been in her 60s. It was impossible to tell. She led visitors on a reverential tour of the place, which was chock full of Walter's handiwork. Some of it--like his pencil drawings
of "the most beautiful children" in the world? in New York? well, in somewhere--were lovely (scroll down a bit to find these in the link). Other examples--such as his oil or acrylic rainbow paintings illustrating his vision of the universe
--were little more than nephew art. The worshipful spiel of the guide and the true beauty of the house made for a good half-hour's worth (or more) of eccentric entertainment for us.
By far, the highlight of each tour took place near the end, when, lo and behold, Lao would just *happen* to come down the stairs, heading off on some *errand* or another. She would stop on the stairs and graciously give us a talk about the wonders of the universe and how if we could see the crystalline strings that bind us all one to the other, we would know that everything we do affects the entire world. Etc. Then she would come down among us and talk to us. The very first time this happened, she exclaimed at the splendor of my friend Barb's beautiful dark hair. Then she turned to me and said "Don't worry. Your hair will be dark too, one day." Um. Lao? I'm a brassy hennaed redhead right now, but at 16 I was nothin' but a brunette. My hair was dark already... and not getting any darker. I always wondered at that statement. Did she really not see anything ELSE coming my way along those crystalline strings? Then she went back up the stairs, and we were shown to the room with all the books and pamphlets and such, including Lao's book Love,
wherein she suggests that you do the dishes with love. Yeah.
Anyway, we thought it was really cool that Lao came down the stairs. Until the next time we visited, and, sure enough, as we reached the end of the tour the guide gasped in awe, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a real treat! Lao Russell is COMING DOWN THE STAIRS!!" Well, it could happen twice, we thought. Until the third time. And the fourth (during which we heard Lao instruct the guide to "push the books").
On the fifth visit, we sussed out just how Lao was summoned. If you have perused the photos linked to above, you will have seen the *smoking room*--the one with the ornate brass and glass cabuchon chandelier and the Moorish fireplace. Well, either in this room or right outside it (I can't quite remember which) is an elevator. This was one of the last rooms on the tour, so when we entered it the guide would nonchalantly push the button on the elevator. If you listened closely, you could even hear it ring ever so mutedly upstairs in the living quarters. We watched this happen on each subsequent visit, and Lao never failed to show. The last time I saw her (in the early '80s when I was visiting family and decided to make the old trek to the place), a surprisingly well-preserved Lao came down trailing a Scottie dog on a leash. Some of her students had made her a present of this dog, whom she named "MacTavish."
A few years later, after Lao had *refolded,* I brough Jeff to take the tour. We saw the significantly older guide, still in a brown cardigan and orthopedic oxfords, walking an aging Scottie dog on the front lawn. I'll just bet it was MacTavish. It made me a little sad--that life goes on and those we love leave us, never to return.
Today, Swannanoa is closed to the public. The University of Science and Philosophy was sent packing nearly a decade ago, but it still exists (as you can tell by the link above). The guy who owns the property says he has plans to renovate the mansion and open it as a bed and breakfast, but he also owns property at the once-thriving tourist enclave atop Afton--property that he allowed to become so derelict that someone just up and set fire to it one night. So I don't have a lot of hope for the old place, although finding the recent pictures assuages my worries somewhat.
One thing you can be sure of--when and if they DO open the place as a B&B, I'm booking a room there. I hope there's one available in the water tower!