Violin and spinet notes waft sweetly -- very sweetly -- through the air at the top of Afton Mountain.
Enter the castle. Find peace, says the part of you that seeks faith, here in Virginia's Blue Ridge.
Gimme a break, replies its skeptical counterpart.
But there is no ignoring the meditative strains pouring from speakers in the twin towers of the landmark mountaintop castle, Swannanoa. The sound system would be the envy of a heavy metal band.
"Doctor loved Bach, but Lao thought garden music should be lighter," a guide recently recalled, using the reverent appellation customary among devotees of the late Swannanoa tenant and self-styled seer Walter Russell and his wife and partner-prophet, Lao.
The high-elevation play list now includes homemade compositions by former Russell students as well as Bach chamber pieces, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and a Rachmaninoff theme popularized in the Christopher Reeve film of occult-flavored romance, "Somewhere in Time."
The music sets the tone for the dizzying blend of kitsch and grandeur that rewards visitors to this 78-year-old replica of the Villa di Medici in Rome. The 52-room, white Georgia marble mansion seems as fantastic as a cloud castle here in the central Virginia mountains, about 25 miles from Charlottesville near the junction of the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
A drive up the narrow, pothole-laden road four miles from the city of Waynesboro leaves no doubt that the site is off the track of Virginia's more mainstream shrines for tourists. But while most of those sites honor founders of the Republic, Swannanoa's late, mated sages claimed the more ambitious -- if debatable -- titles of "cosmic messengers."
"The Russells are what they teach. Everything you wish to become they have already become," wrote Walter Russell -- no glutton for false modesty -- in a leaflet that is still handed out to visitors, though he died ("refolded," by his own terminology) in 1963. Today, Swannanoa is headquarters of the nonprofit University of Science and Philosophy, dedicated to keeping the Russells' philosophy, known as the "Science of Man," alive.
Swannanoa was built as an Italian Renaissance-style summer home by railroad magnate Maj. James Dooley. Dooley -- whose year-round estate, now Richmond's Maymont Park, is also a tourist site -- commissioned an estimated 300 artisans to spend eight years crafting Swannanoa (the American Indian name means "land of beauty"). The palace (as road signs call it) opened in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank and one year before the graduated income tax began to scale down the American Dream's more conspicuous manifestations.
On a typical day, in good weather, perhaps a dozen visitors at a time now roam the palace grounds and tour its rooms.
They pay $3 admission at a small desk in the vast front hall lined with pink and white Carrara marble. Rorschach-like patterns in the hall's white panels were created by juxtaposing split pieces. In cool weather, logs burn in a baronial fireplace, one of 13 in the building.
A sweeping marble staircase dominates the front hall, with stairs roped off by a gold braid.
Sparkling down from the stairway's second-floor landing is a large stained glass window handmade by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The artist's model for the placid-faced young woman depicted there in more than 4,000 pieces of glass, strolling through a floral arbor, was Dooley's wife, Sally Mae.
A domed ceiling over the window was, in the words of our guide, "painted the way Michelangelo would have done." The dome's cracked, faded cherubs and draped maidens, bordered by four tarnished gilt eagles, were the work of a Dooley-commissioned artist whose name has been lost to history.
Much of the fascination of Swannanoa may lie in its eclectic blend of charm with junk, of opulence with ruin.
Following the Dooleys' deaths, the mansion had a brief stint as a country club but fell vacant in 1932 with the advent of the Depression. Natives of surrounding Augusta and Nelson counties have confessed to roller skating as children in its foyer, where raccoons and opossums had taken up residence.
By a seeming miracle, Swannanoa's caretaker notes, the Tiffany window remained intact and the palace escaped major looting until the Russells -- guided, they claimed, by unseen powers -- arrived from New York in 1948.
They signed a long lease with a local corporation, Skyline Swannanoa, which owns the palace to this day.
The couple were partners in philosophy.
Shortly before the move to Virginia, Russell -- a self-educated artist whose early companions had included philosopher Herbert Spencer and IBM founder Thomas Watson -- married a wealthy Englishwoman named Daisy Cook. He changed her name because, according to rumor, he believed her to be a reincarnation of the Chinese philosopher Laotzu. The two joined forces to teach wisdom to the world.
The nondenominational Russellian philosophy stressed meditation, positive thinking and homegrown revisions of mainstream science (Walter Russell attacked the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but warned of the emergence of a hole in the ozone layer).
While renovating the palace, the resourceful Lao is said to have improvised furniture by covering packing crates with velvet and saved on plumbing bills by locating leaks through meditation.
Eventually, the Walter Russell Foundation was established and hundreds of visitors came for summer lectures at the palace, which became filled with opulent Jacobean and Louis XV furniture. Celebrities on the guest list included John Denver and Shirley MacLaine.
Lao spearheaded the work at Swannanoa for 25 years following her husband's death. She died in 1988. In the three years since Lao's "refoldment," Russell students, under the auspices of the renamed University of Science and Philosophy, have maintained the mansion, administered the couple's $200 home-study course in metaphysics and organized conferences that have drawn far-flung participants, including a substantial showing of recent recruits from Nigeria.
The organization pays $5,000 per month rent on the palace and gardens, according to Skyline Swannanoa president Phil Dulaney, who added that the parties are trying to negotiate a new lease to take effect when the current one expires in 1994.
Rooms off the palace's main hallway reflect periods and moods in Russell and Dooley history. Everywhere, elaborate filigreed ceiling work rewards any impulse to crane the neck.
A "Persian Room" with carved teakwood columns framing a Moorish fireplace shows a turn-of-the-century fascination with things of the East. A jeweled, chandelier-like object that appears oversized for the small room is in fact an incense burner.
An original Otis elevator is arrayed with large mirrors (presumed to ward off claustrophobia) and a small bench upholstered in battered leather. Though the conveyance has not worked since the year of Doctor's passing, visitors may step inside, smell the old leather and read a message in a smooth script on a yellowed card asking riders to keep the doors shut.
Gadgetry notwithstanding, the focus of Swannanoa tours is the cornucopia of works by self-taught artist Walter Russell (plus a few by Lao) that illustrates their lives and times, as well as evolving patterns in public taste:
Mark Twain Memorial: A model depicts Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and 25 other characters from Twain's works. Twain's son-in-law, according to legend, diagramed the heads at their various standing and seated positions, drew a musical scale around them and played the result on a piano.
"It made a beautiful tune. Doctor was not surprised," a disciple sighed.
"Scientific paintings": Walter Russell used glowing colors to illustrate natural laws in a collection that has been compared to '60s-era psychedelia.
"The Might of Ages: An ambitious mural crowds a few dozen historic persons on a platform to gaze at the New York City skyline. A guide recently offered free admission to anyone who could add names to the work's incomplete key.
Heads: It would be difficult to feel alone in the palace. Sculpted heads are positioned near eye level at every turn: Twain, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and dozens more, including one of Russell himself (done at age 80 but looking more like 40) and a bust of Lao with a smile reminiscent of a toothpaste commercial.
Kids: Drawings of toddlers in a 1903 Walter Russell portfolio commissioned by Ladies' Home Journal are characterized by the soft lines, bows and curls that were in vogue for children of that era.
Kitsch: Hung throughout the palace are numerous insipid landscapes (some by Walter, others by Lao) that might have been done from paint-by-number kits.
Once outside the palace's ponderous dark wood front door, we are on our own, guided only by instrumental accompaniment.
The grounds' slightly down-at-the heels grandeur is juxtaposed against views of the surrounding mountains, which are, simply and predictably, grand.
A water tank disguised as a Persian prayer tower stands locked and deteriorating a short way uphill from the mansion. In a courtyard, broken gargoyle heads overlook a pool of slime.
Hikers who follow a network of trails and side roads crossing the mountaintop may think they have lost the palace until, rounding a turn, turrets and dulcet notes announce their presence abruptly.
Several small houses nearby are residences of the dozen or so University of Science and Philosophy trustees and employees who conduct tours and maintain the property.
The focal point of the palace grounds is the terraced garden, dominated by a 30-foot sculpture of Christ, which the Russells collaborated on. At the garden's entrance, a fountain sculpture with four robed figures represents Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. Half a century later, the fountain's concrete basin stands cracked and dry, its paint crumbling. Water, a staff member explained, is in short supply.
But the music plays sweetly until sunset.
Swannanoa (University of Science and Philosophy, Waynesboro, Va. 22980, 703-942-5161) is about 135 miles from Washington, halfway between Charlottesville and Staunton. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $3 to the mansion and gardens, $1 to the gardens only.
Chris Edwards McNett is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Va.