Thousands of visitors come to Virginia every year to tour the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. As they soak in the natural beauty where the two meet off Interstate 64 at Rockfish Gap, with views stretching out across the Shenandoah Valley, they soak in something else less appealing, although breathtaking in its own way: a blighted landscape of derelict buildings, including an abandoned orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s, a boarded-up gas station and a graffitied motel with trees growing through holes in the roof.
It wasn’t always like that.
Area natives remember when Rockfish Gap was the place to be in the ’50s and ’60s, drawing both locals and tourists. Under the stewardship of James F. “Phil” Dulaney Jr., who inherited some of the most prime commercial real estate around, as well as Swannanoa Palace, a national historic landmark just down the road to the south, the property has steadily declined and prompted citizens’ calls for eminent domain in 2012 to salvage the “disgrace” on Afton Mountain. It’s not entirely unprecedented—the Shenandoah National Park itself was the result of wholesale, often-resisted eminent domain.
Outrage over the condition of those properties is widespread. A Facebook group called Saving Afton Mountain has over 1,700 members.
Dulaney isn’t the only one whose blighted properties dot the landscape, with the shell of the Landmark Hotel on the Downtown Mall being one of the most prominent examples. At the intersection of Routes 250 and 240 in Crozet, the gutted structure that was going to be Café No Problem has greeted (or perhaps more accurately, visually assaulted) travelers and locals for 20 years.
But unlike those, Dulaney’s properties didn’t fall into disrepair from aborted construction. They were thriving businesses when he took control 43 years ago, and consistently have suffered from a history of neglect—although Dulaney would dispute that. In a recent phone interview, Dulaney reminded that what some consider the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley is in fact private property and he can do what he wants with it. And for years, Dulaney, who’s in his early 60s, has beat a consistent refrain: He’s got plans and he’s working on it.
Skyline Swannanoa Inc.
There’s always been something magical about the Blue Ridge Mountains, even before the Depression-era Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive were built in the ’30s. Rich people like Richmond railroad magnate James Dooley and his bride Sallie May and the Scott family built palaces on either side of the gap that eventually would border Interstate 64.
The Dooleys’ Gilded Age home in Richmond, Maymont, is now a museum and park. Their Afton Italianate mansion, Swannanoa, was built in 1912, and “was state-of-the-art 1912,” Dulaney told C-VILLE in 1999. It featured a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window, an elevator and a transitional barn that housed both horses and the newfangled horseless carriages.
Dulaney’s connection to Swannanoa began with his grandfather, Alvin Tandy Dulaney, who founded Charlottesville Oil in 1929, according to his obituary. Not mentioned in the obituary: He drowned in a pond at Swannanoa, said his grandson.
Phil’s father, James F. “Jim” Dulaney, was one of the area’s most successful and prominent businessmen. He served in the House of Delegates from 1950-1954. Under his proprietorship, Charlottesville Oil became the largest independent Gulf Oil distributor in the world, according to his 1970 obituary at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Among his many business interests, Jim also was the president of Cavalier Tire, Charlottes-ville Tire and Charlottes-ville Realty Corporation, and he served on the board of directors for Virginia National Bank and Peoples National Bank. Family and friends described him as a man “in the old Virginia tradition” in his obituary.
He was the godfather of United Land Corporation’s Wendell Wood, who said Jim Dulaney “was one of the most honorable men and one of the smartest businessmen I ever knew.” Wood declined to comment further for this story.
In the 1940s, Jim Dulaney led a consortium of Charlottesville businessmen, including Wood’s father, in forming Skyline Swannanoa Inc. and buying more than 600 acres on top of Afton Mountain that stretched into both Augusta and Nelson counties and sat at the doorstep of two new national parks. Wood still owns a minority share of the company.
Swannanoa was part of purchase. A couple named Walter and Lao Russell rented the palace in 1948, and for 50 years it was the home of the University of Science and Philosophy, a new age organization, now located in Waynesboro, devoted to unfolding cosmic consciousness in the human race, according to its website.
After his father died in 1970, Phil ended up with a majority ownership of Skyline Swannanoa Inc. and became president in 1972, the same year he graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. He refused to discuss whether his sisters, Alice and Reta, have a stake in the company. The women, who live in Durham and Richmond, respectively, did not return phone calls from C-VILLE.
With the University of Science and Philosophy out in 1998, Phil Dulaney started restoring the palace and envisioned it as a small hotel, perfect for weddings and conferences, he told C-VILLE in 1999. Dulaney himself was married there in 1981 and Wendell Wood was his best man, according to his wedding announcement.
Properties controlled by Phil Dulaney in Albemarle, Augusta and Nelson counties and in Charlottesville are assessed at more than $30 million, according to property records.
In Albemarle, Charlottesville Oil and Charlottesville Realty own more than $14 million in prime commercial properties, including the 2.5-acre Charlottesville Oil headquarters on Ivy Road across from the Boar’s Head Inn, assessed at more than $2 million, and a vacant Woco gas station at 1215 Seminole Trail, assessed at $3,141,900.
In the ’90s, Charlottesville Oil ran into trouble with leaking gas tanks. The Department of Environmental Quality cited Charlottesville Oil 206 times, The Daily Progress reported in 1996, and the company had to clean up leaking tanks at eight locations, including one of the worst, The Trading Post on U.S. 29 south. In 2005, a tank farm was removed from the Ivy Road location because of contaminated soil underneath them.
Charlottesville Realty owns seven properties in the city assessed at almost $6 million, including the parcel that houses Wayside Chicken at the corner of Fontaine and Maury avenues.
In Augusta County, Skyline Swannanoa Inc. owns real estate assessed at $3.2 million. And the company owns 300 acres in Nelson County assessed at $6.57 million—and owes $140,109.41 in unpaid property taxes, according to the treasurer’s office.
Starke Smith remembers when the Holiday Inn, now known as the Inn at Afton, was “second only to the Homestead” in the western part of Virginia. Perched on the southeast side of I-64, the hotel offers sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and Albemarle to the east, and once was considered one of the finest accommodations in the area. Now retired, Smith, 72, did quality control for General Electric and Virginia Panel in Waynesboro. When client executives came in from California or Texas, his companies would book them there to enjoy spectacular views and a steak from the hotel’s restaurant, the Aberdeen Barn.
With the 28 flavors of ice cream-selling HoJo’s down below, the Skyline Parkway Motor Court and a gas station, the scenic intersection was a mid-century motoring mecca.
Augusta native and former Waynesboro city councilor Nancy Dowdy said the Afton Mountain complex, which also included the neighboring Swannanoa golf course (no relation to the palace), a ski slope and an ice skating rink, was the happening place to be. The Holiday Inn “was a grand hotel for its time,” she said. Today the torn plastic Inn at Afton sign flaps in the wind. “It breaks my heart when I see the condition it’s in.”
Holiday Inn was the first to pull out because the chain requires that its franchises be maintained, asserts Smith. A Holiday Inn representative said the company does not discuss private conversations with its franchises.
Newspaper clippings chart the decline of the property. Howard Johnson closed in 1998, and the complex became plagued by arsonists in 2002, when two volunteer firefighters, who later pleaded guilty, torched a log cabin replica that had once been a ski resort office and six weeks later, a Skyline Parkway Motor Court cabin, according to the now-defunct Hook newspaper.
Arsonists struck the motor court again in 2004, and three Waynesboro teens were charged with setting the blaze, The Hook reported.
Hikers coming off the Appalachian Trail compared the area to a war zone and called it “Baghdad on Afton,” according to a 2007 Hook story on the demolition of the Skyline Parkway Motor Court.
Dulaney said he’s torn down six buildings and is going to tear down all of the 13 buildings on the site except the Howard Johnson. With asbestos abatement required in the 1940s-era buildings, demolition is expensive. “I spent $300,000 on the old hotel,” he said.
Up at the Inn at Afton, the eponymous Dulaney’s restaurant with its panoramic views closed in 2008, with Phil Dulaney blaming the bad economy. The Inn remained open, but it had its own problems.
The Virginia State Fire Marshal paid a visit to the Inn July 25, 2011, and listed eight safety violations, including a nonworking fire alarm system and unsafe stairs that demanded immediate attention. The fire alarm wasn’t noted as fixed until six inspections and nearly a year later on May 15, 2012, according to a dozen violation reports obtained through a C-VILLE Freedom of Information Act request.
A December 2012 report said that a stairway still appeared unsafe, and a block of rooms on the second and third floors that would use those stairs as an exit were banned from occupancy. Nelson County took Dulaney to court that year for fire code and building violations, which a judge dismissed because Dulaney was in compliance, according to court records and an NBC29 report.
On a recent visit, an employee said the inn was closed for the winter. Many of the downstairs rooms had no furniture, and a pile of asphalt littered the parking lot. And on TripAdvisor, reviews from those who have stayed are legion: “Motel Hell.” “Disgusting and deplorable!! Worst experience ever.” “Ew.” And finally, “The live mouse in the room was a welcome distraction.”
When asked to compare the condition of the properties to when he took charge of them 43 years ago, said Dulaney, “Everything’s older.”
The right to own an eyesore
Carrie Eheart was born and raised in the Rockfish Gap area, and her great-grandparents’ property was taken by eminent domain to become part of Shenandoah National Park. That’s why she doesn’t advocate seizure of Dulaney’s property. “It’s his property,” she acknowledged, but she’s irked that “he’s not willing to make it look presentable.”
She started the Facebook group Saving Afton Mountain, which has more than 1,700 members. “I started a group to get support, and it just took off,” she said. Her group offered volunteers to paint and do plumbing, but she said Dulaney didn’t take them up on it. She said he told her, “Y’all need to leave me alone. I don’t have any money.”
“It’s just so frustrating to even talk about it,” she said, particularly since legal remedies are few. Neither Nelson nor Augusta counties have maintenance codes that would require repair of dilapidated structures.
County officials in Augusta and Nelson won’t say anything critical about Dulaney. “I really don’t want to comment,” said Nelson County Administrator Steve Carter, who sees Swannanoa as a draw to Nelson. “Mr. Dulaney has been very helpful to the county over the years.”
Asked about the condition of the inn and surrounding property, Nelson Director of Planning and Zoning Tim Padalino said only, “The county would like to see successful lodging, with venues of different scale and price points.”
In Augusta, it’s practically a Dulaney love fest because he allowed the county to put a modular visitor center on top of the hill beyond the Inn at Afton—and allowed the county to pave the parking lot around it. “We value our relationship with Phil,” said Tim Fitzgerald, Augusta director of community development. “Right now he’s not violating any ordinance.”
Fitzgerald denied any embarrassment about the appearance of the eastern entrance to Augusta County, but conceded that “in an ideal world, we’d have all those buildings taken down,” and pointed out that Dulaney has been taking them down as he’s able to.
“It certainly is an important intersection for us with the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive and I-64,” said Amanda Glover, Augusta director of economic development. “We hope in the long term it may be part of a tourist destination. We would certainly support any development project he has.” Glover said she’s not aware of any Dulaney development plans, but she’s certainly aware of the opportunity in a site that has hundreds of thousands of people coming through every year and is the entrance to Augusta and to the Shenandoah Valley.
It’s that fact that chagrins Nancy Dowdy. “Here’s the heartbreaker to me,” she said. “That piece of property is key to economic development in the valley. Would you go here after seeing that?”
And Starke Smith, who used to take clients to what was the crown jewel connecting Charlottesville and Augusta, said, “It just tore me apart to see the disaster he’s allowed. It’s an eyesore, a disgrace to the valley.”
Said Carrie Eheart, “What’s so hard for us is we’ve seen it in its glory. It connected east and west and it brought tourism and money. It’s hard for all of us who knew what it was and to see what it is now.”
Eheart wonders why Dulaney hasn’t sold the property. Dulaney declined to say whether he’s had offers to buy the property, and insisted that he’s proceeding on a number of fronts. Over the years, he’s talked about plans for the site, but most recently, he told C-VILLE his current plans do not include a $10 million investment in redevelopment.
Smith recounts asking Dulaney if he’d sell the property. “He said, no, it’s like one of my children,” said Smith. “I said, ‘If it was one of your children the state would have taken them a long time ago.’”
Dulaney’s critics say that he doesn’t appear to care what other people think, but he seemed sensitive to the public perceptions. “I’m not up for getting trashed,” said Dulaney, who described himself as a private person. And for those who don’t like what he does on his private property that’s in public view, he said, “I don’t like getting pushed around by anybody.”