The journey to preserve Madam CJ Walker's historic estate
Due to the deeply rooted racism that has been a part of this country since its founding, gentrification and centuries of deliberate erasure of African diaspora culture and history, many physical structures that celebrate or acknowledge black achievement have been destroyed or left to rot in the bowels of forgotten history.
Fortunately, people like Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation have dedicated their careers to preserving and honoring the structures that represent a diverse array of cultures and history, including African-American.
It’s one thing to read about a great person of times past but quite another to have a tangible reminder of that person’s existence and legacy.
“Our signature program is National Treasure. We take direct action to remove preservation threats at culturally and nationally significant historic sites in the United States. We provide assistance in legal issues, advocacy, preservation planning and marketing,” said Leggs.
One of Leggs’ current projects is preserving Villa Lewaro, the estate of Sarah Breedlove — a black woman who was born in Louisiana in 1867. She was the daughter of former slaves. Like many black women of the time, she was a domestic who washed clothes. Breedlove went on to become the first female in the United States to earn a million dollars. She is better known as Madam CJ Walker.
Out of necessity (tis the mother of invention), Madam Walker created hair care products and then used innovative business strategies to grow her business from a modest door-to-door endeavor into a multi-million dollar empire.
She left behind not only a rich legacy of pioneering ideas but also a more tangible artifact in the form of her elegant Irvington, New York estate, Villa Lewaro.
The neo-Palladian-style 34-room mansion, built in 1918, is tucked away in a community an hour north of Manhattan. (The Goulds and Rockefellers called that area home as well.)
Walker spared no expense during its construction. She hired the renowned architect Vertner Tandy to design her lavish abode. Tandy was a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and one of the first black people to become a licensed architect in New York state.
Villa Lewaro featured hand-painted ceilings, glossy herringbone floors, elaborate light fixtures, an elevator and an early version of the modern clothes dryer that used steam. Thanks to the doting stewardship of the current owners, Ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helene, all of those features remain intact.
During a recent press tour of the home hosted by the Doleys and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the extravagant yet tasteful details selected by Walker and Tandy made it easy to imagine the mirth of the celebrity-filled parties that once echoed beneath the mansion’s vaulted ceilings.
The stylish and talented elite of the Harlem Renaissance era such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were known to visit the washer woman turned beauty mogul’s home.
“This home represents a lot of different things, more than just the edifice itself,” said Ambassador Doley of Madam Walker. “Irvington was the richest per capita community in America during that time period. So naturally this is where she said, ‘This is where I should build my home.’ She bought the land and paid the ‘black tax,’ which was more than double the going rate.”
Today, hair products targeted towards black women are in high demand. In 2013, market research firm Mintel estimated that the size of the black hair care market is $684 million but could be closer to $500 billion if the sales of weaves and extensions are included. Madam Walker, who innovated several successful business models, would be proud. The Doleys are trying to tap into that creative, entrepreneurial spirit as they search for ways to generate a responsible and sustainable stream of income for the home.
Villa Lewaro was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The designation provides certain forms of architectural protection and tax benefits, but the upkeep of a 20,000 square-foot mansion and a 4,000 square-foot carriage house on three acres of land is a major undertaking. Additionally, Leggs notes that the property is in need of an easement to permanently protect it from negative architectural changes and demolition.
Ambassador Doley, who served as the United States representative to the African Development Bank in the early 1980s is the ideal steward for Villa Lewaro. He’s a fellow Louisiana native and, like Madame Walker, he’s accomplished in the business world.
Among other numerous achievements, he was the first African-American to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He and his wife respect Madam Walker’s legacy, and it is evident in their careful preservation and renovation of the home in the 20 years that they have owned it.
But the Doleys are nearing retirement, and like Ambassador Doley said in his sugar cane sweet accent to the members of the press assembled at the estate, “that’s a lot of space for two people.” The race is on to find an equally responsible steward for the American treasure.
In May, the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund hosted a special retreat at Villa Lewaro for nine thought leaders from various parts of the country to think of ways to generate income for the property. A report is forthcoming, but in the meantime, the Doleys and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are looking to the public for ideas and resources as they seek to preserve Walker’s dignified tribute to her life’s work.
A’Lelia Bundles — Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and the namesake of the entrepreneur’s only daughter, the “joy goddess of Harlem,” also attended the press tour. She has published three books about her famous ancestor, and she is currently working on a biography of Walker’s daughter.
“I have to give a serious thank you to Brent Leggs and Jessica Pumphrey from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They’ve been great. Harold and Helena have been the most amazing stewards of this house. Their work drives home the point that you can have all these great dreams, but you cannot do it alone. I’m confident that we can make this dream come true,” said Bundles.
Unfortunately, Madam Walker died in 1919 and so was only able to enjoy Villa Lewaro for one year. But if these latest efforts to protect the estate are successful, Madam Walker’s legacy will be tangible for generations to come.